Trump calls for canceling Boeing’s Air Force One contract

Air Force has selected Boeing’s 747-8, which will replace the two 747-200s that serve as the presidential Air Force One fleet. BOEING
Caption
Air Force has selected Boeing’s 747-8, which will replace the two 747-200s that serve as the presidential Air Force One fleet. BOEING

The program is managed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base

President-elect Donald Trump slammed the cost of a new Air Force One and used Twitter to call for canceling the new aircraft fleet Tuesday, raising questions about the future of the program managed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

In a tweet sent at 8:52 a.m., the president-elect wrote: “Boeing is building a brand new 747 Air Force One for future presidents, but costs are out of control, more than $4 billion. Cancel order!”

The Air Force is planning to replace two aging Boeing 747-200s that serve as Air Force One when the president is aboard with two newer and highly modified Boeing 747-8 airliners. The jets were expected to join the fleet by 2024, replacing a current fleet that will be more than three decades old at the time.

In a statement, Boeing spokesman Todd Blecher noted the company is under contract for $170 million to “determine the capabilities of these complex military aircraft that serve the unique requirements of the President of the United States. We look forward to working with the U.S. Air Force on subsequent phases of the program.”

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A program official at Wright-Patterson has said the White House has urgently asked for the jets because of reliability concerns as the planes age, among other concerns.

“The real challenge, and the challenge that is forcing us to buy newer aircraft for the president, is to overcome the fact that there are heroics going on every day to keep the current aircraft flying and it’s becoming way too expensive and way too difficult to do that,” Kevin W. Buckley, program executive officer of mobility programs headquartered at the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center at Wright-Patterson, recently told this newspaper.

The service branch reported it has budgeted $2.7 billion for the research and development of the jet beginning in fiscal year 2017, but that figure was expected to change while it’s in the midst of “risk reduction activities” with Boeing, according to Capt. Michael Hertzog, an Air Force spokesman at the Pentagon. The Air Force is working with the aerospace giant on the plane’s capabilities and final cost estimates, he said. Thus far, the Air Force has awarded the Chicago-headquartered company about $170 million for the program. A final contract has not yet been awarded.

Richard Aboulafia, a senior aviation analyst with the Virginia-based Teal Group, said in an email that the Trump tweet was “complete nonsense. But making program management and military requirements decisions via tweet is just very wrong.”

In an interview, he said the president-elect’s position on the Air Force One replacement was “very concerning.”

“This is not from the standpoint of the contract, but just from deeper lack of understanding for what the president does,” he said. “It’s very important for the president to travel, visit other places in the country and other countries and be able to manage national emergencies while he travels. You can’t do that without Air Force One.

“Now the alternative is he thinks a 50-year-old Air Force One will do the job,” Aboulafia said. “Hopefully, nobody can be that completely misinformed.”

A message seeking comment was sent to Trump spokespersons Tuesday.

Vice-President-elect Mike Pence went on CNN Tuesday afternoon to defend Trump’s statement, saying the president-elect is a businessman who “knows how to sharpen his pencils.” Pence said Trump wasn’t sending a message to a particular company but was emphasizing that all companies need to be fiscally responsible.

Todd Harrison, director of the aerospace project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., said it’s a tradition for an outgoing president to request a new Air Force One “so that it would not be seen as being for personal benefit.”

“If Trump cancels the program now, it could be another eight years before a new replacement program is started, so that aircraft would be pushing 40 years old by then,” Harrison wrote.

The production of the iconic Boeing 747 jumbo jet could come to an end “so it’s not clear that the Air Force would be able to buy a commercial derivative plane like the 747 from a U.S. company in the future,” he wrote.

Aboulafia said the more than $4 billion price tag Trump cited was “about right over 10 years.”

“It’s incredibly expensive to be able to manage a country and fight a war from the air, and build two planes that can do that,” he said. But he rejected the claim the costs were “out of control.”

Loren B. Thompson, a senior defense analyst at the Virginia-based Lexington Institute and a defense industry consultant, said in an email the president-elect “probably overstates” the cost of the two new jets.

“Boeing thinks the program will cost less, but it is hard to say precisely how much because the Air Force hasn’t finalized the requirements for the program.

“This is a plane that might need to remain airborne for days during a nuclear war,” Thompson added. “It must be able to carry out functions no other plane in the world would need to accomplish.”

The jet’s cost is driven by its mission with self-protection measures such as shielding against electromagnetic pulse in a nuclear explosion and specialized communication gear to command a nuclear strike “which is why it is so much more expensive than the planes Trump is used to buying,” Harrison wrote.

The National Museum of the U.S. Air Force hopes to land one of the current blue and white Air Force Ones when the jet was expected to be retired in the next decade to add to its collection of 10 presidential aircraft.

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