- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 19, 2020

President Trump wants to base the production line of the F-35 Lightning II entirely in the United States and a retired Air Force general who played a key role in designing the multi-role combat aircraft said the idea isn’t as far-fetched as critics make it out to be.

The F-35 was the result of the Joint Strike Fighter program, which merged several combat aircraft systems of the 1980s and 1990s. From the beginning, several countries contributed funds to the design and were given the opportunity to bid on contracts.

But, in an interview last week with the Fox Business Network, Mr. Trump railed against what he called the “stupidity” of having foreign countries involved in the F-35 supply chain.

“If we have a problem with the country, you can’t make the jet. We get parts from all over the place — it’s so crazy. We should make everything in the United States,” he told FBN’s Maria Bartiromo.

Mr. Trump has a point, in the opinion of retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Frank B. Campbell Jr., a former director for force structure, resources and assessment on the Joint Staff in the Pentagon. He was involved in the development of the cutting-edge fighter jet from the start.

During a Monday conference call organized by the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA), Lt. Gen. Campbell said he thought it was possible to “unwind” foreign participation in the F-35 production, provided contractual issues could be solved.

“A lot of that would be addressed case by case,” he said. The U.K., he noted, “was an early partner in the aircraft and spent a lot of their own money in the development phase.”

But it’s the role of Turkey, which signed up as an F-35 production partner but was kicked out of the program following its acceptance of the S-400 Russian-made air defense system, that looms as the key test case.

“A significant production facility was going to be in Turkey and that’s been unwound,” he said. “If we can unwind that one, we can unwind anything.”

The F-35 has three variants — a standard jet for the Air Force, a carrier-capable version for the Navy, and the F-35B, a short take-off and vertical land model for the U.S. Marine Corps.

Retired Gen. Mark Welsh, a former Air Force Chief of Staff, said the fighter’s stealthiness and ability to share vast quantities of networked information is why at least 4,000 F-35s will be built for the U.S. military during its expected 50-year run.

“It’s the quarterback of the battlefield. It’s a phenomenal machine,” Gen. Welsh said. “The F-35 was designed and built to stay ahead of the data technology improving curve.”

With Turkey no longer participating, the Pentagon has been scrambling to find other suppliers for the F-35 components they were manufacturing. Lt. Gen. Campbell said the network capability and stealth technology of the F-35 — its core attributes — will remain protected even with foreign subcontractors.

But Mr. Trump’s musings about an entirely American-made F-35 are still a long way off.

Even after Turkey’s ouster from the F-35 program, a “good deal” of the aircraft is still either assembled internationally or is built with parts manufactured overseas, Lt. Gen. Campbell said.

“I think that will continue,” he said.

The coronavirus pandemic has spotlighted concerns about U.S. civilian and military dependence on foreign sources for key raw materials and technology in other fields as well.

The Pentagon this week proposed new legislation to ease the near-total dependence on China for so-called “rare earth” minerals critical to the manufacture of a wide range of high-tech products — including missiles and hypersonic weapons.

China accounts for more than 70% of rare earth production globally and is the largest source for imports to the U.S., which had been a major producer until it was priced out by Beijing in the late 1980s, according to Defense News, citing a Congressional Research Service report.

The Pentagon is asking Congress to consider legislation that would end the reliance on China and raise caps in the Defense Production Act so it could spend up to $1.75 billion on rare earth elements for munitions and missiles and $350 million for microelectronics, according to Defense News.

Pentagon sources say they hope the proposal will be included in the next annual defense policy bill now being drafted on Capitol Hill.

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