SecAF Defends Air Force One as ‘Flying White House’

Col. Christopher Thompson, the 89th Airlift Wing vice commander, and 89th AW Airmen salute as Air Force One departs Joint Base Andrews, Md., March 20, 2016. Responding to President-elect Donald Trump's criticism of a new Air Force One, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James defended the proposed aircraft as a "flying White House." (U.S. Air Force photo/Kevin Wallace)Col. Christopher Thompson, the 89th Airlift Wing vice commander, and 89th AW Airmen salute as Air Force One departs Joint Base Andrews, Md., March 20, 2016. Responding to President-elect Donald Trump's criticism of a new Air Force One, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James defended the proposed aircraft as a "flying White House." (U.S. Air Force photo/Kevin Wallace)

Responding to President-elect Donald Trump’s criticism of a new Air Force One, the service’s top civilian defended the proposed aircraft as a “flying White House.”

While acknowledging the high cost of the program, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James on Monday made a point to explain how the planes aren’t typical 747 airliners made by Boeing Co.

“It’s a flying White House, with ultra-high levels of security and communications and defensive protection measures built in,”  James said during a speech at an Atlantic Council event in Washington, D.C.

Trump over the past few weeks has criticized the high cost of both the $4 billion Air Force One program being developed by Boeing and the nearly $400 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter being manufactured by Lockheed Martin Corp.

The president-elect on Dec. 6 tweeted “cancel order!” in reference to the Air Force One program. He brought up the issue again during a Dec. 16 speech in Pennsylvania.

“I don’t want a plane to fly around in that costs $4.2 billion, believe me … not going to happen … and I didn’t order it, please, remember this,” he said. “But we’re going to work with Boeing, we’re going to cut the price way down — way, way down.”

Boeing has so far received $170 million in development funding to study the technical requirements of the future Air Force One aircraft, the company has said.

And at least one defense analyst has pointed out the overall estimate includes the cost of two planes, both of which would operate as a flying command post in an emergency and feature advanced technology such as protection from electromagnetic pulse attacks.

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James noted that the technical requirements for the plane were drawn up by the White House, not the Air Force. “Maybe if you change some of the requirements you can get the costs down,” she said.

The secretary also defended the F-35, which she said “sells itself” to allies desperate to field fifth-generation fighter jet technology.

Even so, she acknowledged the cost of the Joint Strike Fighter program remains an issue. The Pentagon estimates it will spend nearly $400 billion to procure 2,457 of the single-engine fighters — and some $1.5 trillion in lifetime sustainment costs.

“Can the costs be driven down more? Perhaps,” James said, adding that the president-elect may search for other ways to find a better deal for taxpayers.

The Pentagon in November handed down a Low Rate Initial Production contract to Lockheed Martin last month for 57 more F-35s under a $6.1 billion deal — a decision that Lockheed criticized as disappointing and unfair because it didn’t address manufacturing issues, such as risk assessment and delivery schedules.

It’s no secret the F-35 has had “a difficult past” plagued by breakdowns, cost overruns and other embarrassing mishaps, she said. “But if you look at the recent years, the F-35 the cost has been coming down,” she added, noting the per-plane price tag of the fifth-generation fighter will soon approach that of fourth-generation models.

Above all, NATO allies and others are clamoring for the technology, James said.

“If you look at the various scenarios where we may have to go into combat around the world … it’s the high-end threats, the anti-access area denial environments, the threats that sell this capability,” she said, referring to such countries as Russia and China.

About the Author

Oriana Pawlyk
Oriana Pawlyk is a reporter at Military.com. She can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.