Trump has assailed the jet’s cost, but only a modest order by the U.S. Navy is really in question.

Justin Bachman

As president-elect, Donald Trump wasted little time publicly questioning the Pentagon’s most expensive combat platform, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter from Lockheed Martin Corp.

“Based on the tremendous cost and cost overruns of the Lockheed Martin F-35, I have asked Boeing to price-out a comparable F-18 Super Hornet!” Trump wrote on Twitter in December. Days after Trump took office, the Defense Department began a formal assessment to determine the costs and capabilities of a modernized F/A-18 Super Hornet, a fighter that has figured famously on television and film whenever a carrier battle group steamed by.

The proposed upgrade, a suite of modifications Boeing Co. has been pushing as orders for new F/A-18s slow, is now suddenly in play.

Given all the clamor about its expense, one might be forgiven for thinking the F-35 was in serious jeopardy. But thus far, Lockheed has little reason to worry about the fate of the $380 billion Joint Strike Fighter program, the most expensive weapons system in U.S. history. The Pentagon plans to take 2,443 of the jets, refitted Super Hornets or not.

The F-35 is a stealth attack fighter designed for the Air Force, the Marine Corps, and the Navy—with different specifications for each service. Trump’s statements about it have largely skirted the fact that they are three significantly different airplanes. In reality, any financial threat to Lockheed over F-35 orders pertains only to the F-35C, the version being acquired by the Navy, which perhaps not coincidentally, is the branch which has shown the least enthusiasm for the jet.

The Navy has orders for 260 F-35Cs, compared with 1,763 F-35As heading to the Air Force. The Marine Corps is buying 420 F-35s, including 80 of the model designed for the Navy. One advantage the Super Hornet has with the Navy is its two engines, like the F-14 Tomcat that preceded it. It’s a favored configuration for naval aviators who often operate far from shore and must land on aircraft carriers. The F-35 is a single-engine fighter.

Even so, the Navy isn’t looking to turn its back on the new, stealthy jet. For one thing, the branch isn’t inclined to choose between deployment of a so-called “fourth-generation” fighter like the F/A-18 and the “fifth-generation” F-35. It needs both, according to Admiral John Richardson, chief of naval operations.

“We’ve always had a sort of mixed approach to that,” Richardson said in January at a Defense One discussion in Washington. “We need the F-35. That is our 5th-gen capability, which we need to be competitive. But that will be supplemented by a healthy cadre of advanced Super Hornets as well.” Richardson said he viewed Trump’s comments as focused more on the F-35’s overall expense, not about the fighter’s abilities. “We need that capability and we need to get it at the very best price for the taxpayer that we can,” said Richardson. “We also need that Super Hornet. That’s our strategy going forward.”

The price of an F-35A fell 8 percent last year and each one now costs below $100 million; the other variants cost more. “By the end of the decade it will be the same price, if not lower, than a fourth-generation aircraft,” said Michael Rein, a Lockheed Martin spokesman in Fort Worth, Texas, where the company does F-35 final assembly.

It remains unclear how much Boeing’s newest F/A-18 might cost over the current Super Hornet’s $70 million pricetag. It’s also hard to forecast how much larger defense budgets will grow under Trump, and whether there’s sufficient funding to purchase both fighters.

Additionally, the Navy’s F-35 won’t be designated as operational until August 2018 at the earliest, making it an easier target for production cuts, Bloomberg News reported last week. A spokesperson for Richardson’s office didn’t immediately return a message seeking comment.

Of course, a reduced Navy F-35C order could also boost the cost of the F-35s the Air Force and Marines are acquiring, further complicating efforts to curb the overall program cost.

“We don’t see it as a threat,” Rein said of the revived Super Hornet. “Just in the last 3 1/2 months, we have gotten an order for 147 more jets, so we feel very good about our program right now.”