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Pentagon chief appears to throw shade at the F-35 in thinly-veiled jab

Ryan Pickrell
  • Acting Secretary of Defence Patrick Shanahan seemed to take a thinly-veiled jab at the F-35 during a press briefing Tuesday.
  • Responding to accusations that he is biased towards Boeing, where he worked for three decades, Shanahan stressed that he is focused on performance and making sure the taxpayers get their money's worth.
  • The F-35 "has a lot of opportunity for more performance," he said, doubling down on his reported criticisms of the Lockheed Martin's F-35, the most expensive weapons program in US history.

Acting Secretary of Defence Pat Shanahan took a swipe at the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter in a off-camera briefing at the Pentagon Tuesday.

Shanahan, a former Boeing executive, has been accused of bias toward his former company, which lost the bid for the development of a fifth-generation stealth fighter jet to competitor Lockheed Martin.

"Am I still wearing a Boeing hat? I think that's just noise," the acting secretary said Tuesday, responding to the allegations. But, then he took a thinly-veiled jab at the F-35.

"I'm biased towards performance. I am biased toward giving taxpayers their money's worth. The F-35 unequivocally, I can say, has a lot of opportunity for more performance," he explained, possibly suggesting that the aircraft is not quite where it needs to be.

Shanahan has signed an ethics agreement recusing himself from participating in matters pertaining to Boeing, a major US defence contractor.

An F-35 Lightning II performs aerial maneuvers during a combat power exercise at Hill Air Force Base Nov. 19, 2018.

His latest comments on the fighter, which were relatively diplomatic, are nothing compared to what he reportedly said in private meetings while serving as the deputy secretary of defence.

A former senior Defence Department official recently told Politico that Shanahan has described the F-35 as "f---ed up" and said its maker, Lockheed Martin, "doesn't know how to run a program."

"If it had gone to Boeing, it would be done much better," that same former official recalled Shanahan saying, according to Politico.

Lockheed beat out Boeing in the Joint Strike Fighter competition around the turn of the century, with the Department of Defence ultimately picking Lockheed's X-35 - which later became the F-35 - over Boeing's X-32 in 2001.

During its development, the F-35, a costly project which could cost more than $US1 trillion over the course of its lifetime, has faced constant criticism for a variety of problems. The F-35 is generally considered the most expensive weapons program in US history.

A formation of F-35A Lightning IIs, from the 388th and 419th Fighter Wings, fly over the Utah Test and Training Range as part of a combat power exercise on Nov. 19, 2018.

"The F-35 is our future," he said in September at the Air Force Association's Air, Space & Cyber Conference.

"I think we can all agree that it is a remarkable aircraft, with eye-watering capabilities critical to the high-end fight," he added. "I tip my hat to its broad team of government, industry, and international partners. Having worked on programs of similar size and complexity, I have enormous respect for your talent and commitment."

Despite these decidedly kind words, his comments Tuesday seem to suggest that the F-35 has left a lot to be desired.