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F-35 files over Wisconsin (copy)

Truax Field in Madison is a finalist to become home for 18 F-35 fighter jets, such as this one that flew over an air-to-ground missile range in central Wisconsin during an exercise out of Volk Field Air National Guard Base in Camp Douglas last August. 


President-elect Donald Trump tweeted himself into yet another stock-price-rocking fight with a federal contractor on Monday, this time blasting a costly fighter-jet program Wisconsin leaders are hoping will benefit the state.

Trump said on Twitter that F-35 fighter jets being purchased by the Pentagon are too costly, and he promised to cut “billions” from the price.

The Air Force announced less than a week ago that Madison’s Truax Field was one of five finalists to join a growing number of military bases that are home to the new generation of warplanes.

Trump’s Republican allies in Wisconsin have joined Democrats in pushing for deployment of the jets to Truax as a way of securing the base’s economic benefits to the region.

On Monday, state Republicans responded to Trump with measured statements, maintaining support for bringing the F-35 here without criticizing the president-elect.

The Air Force plans next year to select two of the five finalist locations. Becoming a home for 18 F-35s is seen as protection for Truax when the military re-evaluates its needs and ponders base closures.

Trump didn’t threaten to cancel production of the F-35 — as he did last week with manufacture of new presidential aircraft — and there was no immediate word on how his comments on Twitter and on a Fox News program Sunday might affect F-35 base selection.

But the stock price of the aircraft’s manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, plunged in the hours following the tweet. Sales of the F-35 accounted for 20 percent of Lockheed’s revenue last year.

The aircraft has been criticized previously by Trump and others over cost overruns, delays in complex software for its navigation and weapons systems, and optimistic Pentagon projections for when problems will be fixed.

“The F-35 program and cost is out of control. Billions of dollars can and will be saved on military (and other) purchases after January 20th,” Trump tweeted.

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, who won re-election in November while allying himself more closely to Trump than many Republicans did, responded by issuing a statement emphasizing the role of Congress.

“I look forward to working with my colleagues in the next Congress to ensure that the costs of the F-35 remain under control,” Johnson said.

A spokesman for Gov. Scott Walker praised Trump’s criticism of the F-35’s $400 billion cost while repeating his support for deploying the jets in Madison.

“The 115th Fighter Wing at Truax Field would be an outstanding location for the Air Force’s F-35s, and program costs don’t change that,” Walker spokesman Tom Evenson said. “The governor is also pleased to see President-elect Trump fighting to put taxpayers first.”

The president of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, which also is pushing for Truax, avoided any mention of Trump.

“The United States Air Force’s current plan is to select two National Guard sites for the F-35A aircraft, and as long as that process continues to move forward, the Chamber and our partners will make the case that the 115th Fighter Wing is uniquely positioned to be the future home of these next-generation jets,” chamber president Zach Brandon said.

The F-35A is the Air Force version of the jet. Other models are being produced for the Navy and the Marines.

U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, said she would continue to push for basing the jets at Truax while also demanding “progress and strong congressional oversight” of the program.

Two other Truax boosters in Congress — Reps. Mark Pocan, D-Black Earth, and Sean Duffy, R-Wausau — didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Members of Wisconsin’s Congressional delegation lined up months ago to urge the Air Force to place F-35s at the state Air National Guard base at Truax.

Wisconsin is competing against Dannelly Field, Montgomery, Alabama; Gowen Field, Boise, Idaho; Jacksonville Air National Guard Base in Florida; and Selfridge Air National Guard Base, Detroit.

Congress sees jobs

in defense spending

Roughly 200 of the 2,443 jets the Pentagon expects to buy in the next 20 years have already been deployed or are in the pipeline.

It was the second time in a week that Trump blasted a federal aircraft contractor. Last week, Trump tweeted “Cancel order!” about “out of control” costs for new presidential planes being built by Boeing Corp.

Congressional Republicans and Democrats, aware of the tens of thousands of jobs the aircraft generates in 45 states, will be wary of any plans by Trump to cut the program despite its nearly $400 billion cost.

The F-35 is the Pentagon’s most expensive weapons acquisition ever. Despite the huge cost, the program has strong bipartisan support in Congress, where lawmakers view the aircraft as essential to national security.

Despite massive budget overruns early on, the per-airplane cost has decreased as production picked up, said Joe DellaVedova, spokesman for the Pentagon office overseeing F-35 procurement.

The 2014 price tag of $108 million per plane was $4 million lower than in the previous year, and the cost is on a “glide path” toward $85 million per plane by 2019, DellaVedova said.

But the projection appears to omit the price of the engine and the cost of development, according to Todd Harrison, a defense budget expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. When those elements are added in, the cost in current-year dollars is closer to $138 million, Harrison said.

Companies from 45 states are involved in F-35 production, with Texas, Georgia, California, Arizona and Florida playing lead roles in testing and manufacture. More than 1,250 domestic suppliers produce thousands of components, according to Lockheed.

Harrison said the 2014 price drop followed tough negotiations between the Pentagon and Lockheed.

“Trump is unlikely to squeeze more blood out of this rock,” Harrison said.

Lockheed shares fell more than 7 percent at one point Monday.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


Steven Verburg is a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal covering state politics with a focus on science and the environment as well as military and veterans issues.