Air Force secretary responds to Trump: Boeing deal ‘complicated’
By BRYAN BENDER
The secretary of the Air Force has a message for Donald Trump, who says he wants to cancel Boeing’s “out of control” contract to build a new presidential aircraft: “It is a bit more complicated.”
Deborah Lee James, responding to the president-elect’s tweet early Tuesday calling for scrapping the multibillion-dollar plan for a pair of new 747s, told POLITICO the new Air Force One will be so expensive because it requires so many added features demanded by White House security personnel.
The features, including protecting the aircraft from missile attacks and the ability to communicate with nuclear forces, are not only intended to protect the commander-in-chief but also to allow him or her to run the government for extended periods of time during a national emergency.
“Air Force One, although it is a 747 platform, is way, way more than what you would think of as a commercial airliner,” James said in an interview. “It really is, in many ways, a flying White House, in terms of the security. There’s [electronic] countermeasures built in, communications, very high level communications, security of all types. After all, this is carrying the president of the United States. It has to go long distances, it has to survive under difficult circumstances, much more difficulty than a normal civilian airliner. So it is a bit more complicated than perhaps meets the eye.”
She also contended that while the Air Force oversees the program, the aircraft standards are set by the White House.
“There are professional security people who are in the White House who develop requirements for Air Force One,” she explained. “They are not political appointees; they are professional security people. Those requirements then come to the Air Force and our job is to build the acquisition strategy around it to deliver those requirements. In other words, we didn’t make up all these security factors and communications standards.”
Could the price tag be pared down? “Yes, if you change the requirements,” James said. “If you have lesser communications requirements, if you have lesser countermeasures, if you have lesser any of these factors.”
She also pointed out that the new fleet, which is now in the research and development phase, is not scheduled to be ready for another decade, after Trump is already out of office.
“It will be the president after the next president who actually flies on this Air Force One,” she said.
The special needs of the president may not be the only obstacle to canceling the project. The likely political pushback from Boeing boosters on Capitol Hill was also on display Tuesday
“The workers of my state and the workers of Boeing across this country do an incredible job and build and incredible airplane,” Sen. Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington, where the fleet in being built, told POLITICO. “I hope the president-elect takes the time to talk to the Pentagon and the Air Force and Boeing about how defense contracts work before he tweets.”
Her fellow Washington Democrat, Rep. Suzan DelBene, took to Twitter herself, accusing Trump of “using unsubstantiated facts to publicly attack American aerospace workers, despite saying he’ll protect U.S. jobs.”
Boeing, for its part, struck a measured tone.
“We are currently under contract for $170 million to help determine the capabilities of these complex military aircraft that serve the unique requirements of the president of the United States,” the company said in a statement. “We look forward to working with the U.S. Air Force on subsequent phases of the program allowing us to deliver the best planes for the president at the best value for the American taxpayer.”
But are there other options for a new Air Force One?
Sure, responded James. “You could compete” the program and pick another main contractor. “Perhaps Airbus could win.”