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Donald Trump blasts defense contracting titans for overpriced weapons

Donald Trump blasts defense contracting titans for overpriced weapons

Military reformers in the nation’s capital may have found a soul mate in a billionaire real estate magnate who takes a keen interest in what things cost, including big weapons systems.

The reformers — an alliance of watchdog activists, technocrats and former government auditors — have long bemoaned the delays and cost overruns that plague the Pentagon’s procurement of ships, guns and planes.

Now, President-elect Donald Trump seems to have joined them. He has taken to Twitter to blast the titans of defense contracting for what he sees as overpriced weapons, suggesting a procurement overhaul may be a top priority to Defense Secretary-nominee James N. Mattis.

“To say the least, we are a bit stunned, albeit pleasantly so,” said Thomas P. Christie, the Pentagon’s former top weapons tester who has long advocated lower-cost alternatives.

Mr. Trump met Dec. 21 at his Mar-a-Lago mansion in Palm Beach, Florida, with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and senior officers who will oversee the procurement side of a $619 billion defense budget this year.

Before the Florida summit, Mr. Trump tweeted a cancellation warning to Boeing Co. about the long-term costs of two new Air Force One planes. Then he took on the costliest weapon system in U.S. history: the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II. The procurement history of the joint strike fighter jet is so pocked with trouble that Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, Arizona Republican, has called it a “scandal and tragedy.”

Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing rank No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, as the Defense Department’s largest contractors based on revenue, according to Defense News.

If there is a networking headquarters for the military reform movement, it would be the Project On Government Oversight in Washington. For years, POGO has exposed defense industry malpractice while promoting what it sees as less-costly weapons options.

Dan Grazier, a former Marine captain who joined POGO in 2015 as a budget and weapons analyst, said he is “cautiously optimistic” about Mr. Trump’s tilt toward Pentagon reforms.

“It’s refreshing to hear someone taking on the military-industrial-congressional complex this way, because this is something we haven’t seen for many, many, many years,” Mr. Grazier said. “The fact that he’s able to at least get Boeing and Lockheed working to reduce cost, it’s a good shot across the bow. But there’s a big difference between words and action. He’s talking a really good game now. Now let’s see if he can actually translate it into action.”

Winslow Wheeler, a longtime reformer government auditor and Senate aide, said it’s impossible to predict what actions Mr. Trump will take but that the right path is a “drain the swamp” option of canceling the F-35 and building separate replacements for the A-10 close-air support jet used effectively against the Islamic State group, as well as follow-ons for the Navy F-18 Hornet and the Air Force F-16.

A big complaint from reformers is that the F-35 was doomed

"The F-35 program and cost is out of control," President-elect Donald Trump tweeted on Dec. 12. "Billions of dollars can and will be saved on military (and other) purchases after January 20th." (Associated Press)

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