Trump Just Provided More Evidence That He Thinks The F-35 Is Actually Invisible

On Thanksgiving Day, Commander In Chief Donald Trump visited U.S. Coast Guard Lake Worth Inlet Station located nearby his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach where he is vacationing. While there, Trump made a series of meandering remarks, which included touting his administration’s accomplishments and thanking the Coast Guard members for their hard work. At one point his speech strayed into a familiar but chronically erroneous subject matter for the President—the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. 

The President has a long and inconsistent relationship with the F-35 program, which we have documented in detail. He went from being a vocal critic of the program to being one of its biggest cheerleaders, having proclaiming that he alone “fixed it” after negotiating down its price—a claim that is dubious at best. More recently, the President strayed into the F-35 realm when talking about relief efforts with Puerto Rican officials while visiting the storm ravaged island, and just as in this latest instance, for some reason he brought the program up while addressing the U.S. Coast Guard, stating

“Amazing job, and amazing job. So amazing that we’re ordering hundreds of millions of dollars of new airplanes for the Air Force, especially the F-35. Do you like the F-35? I said how does it do it in fights, and how do they do in fights with the F-35. He says we do very well, you can’t see it. Literally you can’t see. It’s hard to fight a plane you can’t see right? But that’s an expensive plane you can’t see. And as you probably heard we cut the price very substantially, something other administrations would never have done, that I can tell you.”


The statement was puzzling, not just because it was astonishingly off topic and inappropriate considering the setting and audience, but it doubled down on previous comments that alluded to the possibility that Trump has a very poor understanding of the aircraft’s capabilities, and may even think the aircraft is actually invisible, not just low observable in terms of its radar return and low-probability of intercept electronic emissions. But what he told the Coasties in Florida on Thursday seems to further underscore the possibility that he does indeed think the controversial jet is invisible:

“With the Air Force we’re ordering a lot of planes, in particular the F-35 fighter jet, which is almost you know like an invisible fighter. I was asking the Air Force guys how good is this plane, and they said ‘well sir you can’t see it,’ I said yeah but in a fight, you know a fight, like I watch on the movies, the fight, they’re fighting, how good is it? ‘Well it wins every time because the enemy cannot see it, even if it’s right next to it, it can’t see it.’ I said that helps, that’s a good thing. 

But we have equipment that nobody has the equipment that we have. It’s sad when we are selling our equipment to other countries but we’re not buying it ourself ok. But now that’s all changed. And I said the stuff that we have is always a little better too. You know when we sell to other countries, even if they’re allies, you never know about an ally an ally can turn, you’re going to find that out. But I always say make ours a little bit better, give it that extra speed, a little bit—keep a little bit—keep about ten percent in the bag. Because what he have nobody has like we have, and uh that’s what we’re doing.”

Trump’s comments on weapons exports are also interesting to say the least, as they show a basic misunderstanding of export controls, including those surrounding the F-35. The F-35s being sold to America’s allies have not been downgraded for export as was rumored for years as the program began to mature. Israel is the only country that will have special ability to alter the F-35’s capabilities for their own needs. 

In some cases other fighter aircraft and weapon systems are exported with tailored capabilities intended to reduce risk and to help keep U.S. regional policy and balance of power in check. For instance, Iraqi F-16s were not delivered with AIM-120 capability, and Saudi Arabia received their F-15S aircraft with downgraded radar and electronic warfare capabilities. Taiwan is maybe the best example of this, with the Obama administration banning them from buying new F-16s, so instead they had to upgrade their older F-16s to a similar standard. 

In recent years, 4th generation aircraft like the F-16 and F-15, have been exported in far more potent form than older examples still serving with America’s air arms. But as far as the F-35 goes, a USAF F-35A and one delivered to the Netherlands will have the same capabilities and radar cross-section, that is unless Trump has let slip that this has changed—something international customers won’t be happy about to say the least. Regardless, having ten percent more speed is not a major tactical factor anyways.

Saudis received their F-15S jets with downgraded capabilities largely meant to maintain Israel’s qualitative air combat edge in the region. Today the Saudis operate the most advanced F-15 in the world, the F-15SA. , Tyler Rogoway/author

The President has seemingly made more incorrect statements about weapon systems and their capabilities than correct ones since being inaugurated, and sometimes these factually wrong declarations have been eschewed during very high-profile and strategically impactful events. Most recently, Trump incorrectly touted America’s ballistic missile defense capabilities while fielding question with Japanese Prime Minster Abe during a visiting to Japan. 

The fact is America’s enemies are watching and listening, and seeing a Commander in Chief that is so bombastic about a topic he clearly doesn’t have much understanding of hurts American credibility. His almost child-like view of tactical aircraft capabilities in particular is also a massive blessing for U.S. defense contractors who are in increasingly close orbit with the White House. Someone with this level of comprehension about complex weapon systems does not represent a good negotiator or strategist when it comes to procurement decisions and setting up America’s military capabilities mix. Instead they represent an easily persuadable mark with the power to make or break major defense deals worth billions of dollars. And those defense contractors are playing ball when it comes to feeding the President’s ego with great results to show for it. As I noted last May:

It is pretty clear Trump has been personally spoon-fed the F-35 brochure from LockMart and the program office. Without any point of reference, it all must seem pretty wondrous. Oh and the program he was so critical of during his campaign is now magically fixed because he made a phone call. Totally ridiculous to the point that its downright insulting. And really, nothing of this has to do with the jet itself, just a new slathering of politics that surrounds it. 

To be honest, I had high hopes that Trump could spur systemic change within the DoD’s procurement process. Those hopes have faded rapidly over the last three months. It seems that he is far more interested in selectively intervening in a few high-profile programs he has interest in so that he can claim fake victories and gloat about them endlessly to the press, and the defense industry is happy to oblige him if it means funding certainty and a strong order book. 

As Trump would put it: “sad.”

None of this would be much of an issue if Trump didn’t inject himself directly into major Pentagon procurement issues or insist in talking in detail about particular weapon systems that he has a poor working knowledge of even on a conceptual level. Instead he could leave these types of statements to others and just paint in broad strategic strokes. 

As for what about talking to the Coast Guard seems to trigger a Trump speech about the F-35’s abilities, there is no clear answer for that. 

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