President Donald Trump's commencement address at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut took a strange turn Wednesday when he brought up two major military acquisition programs belonging to other services, bragging about how much money he had saved.
The remarks immediately created a buzz on the internet, as critics wondered whether Trump realized the Coast Guard had no stake in the programs he mentioned.
"I won’t talk about how much I saved you on the F-35 fighter jet. I won’t even talk about it. Or how much we’re about to save you on the Gerald Ford, the aircraft carrier," Trump said in his remarks at the academy around noon on Wednesday.
"That had a little bit of an overrun problem before I got here, you know that. Still going to have an overrun problem. We came in when it was finished. But we’re going to save some good money," he said. "And when we build the new aircraft carriers they’re going to be built under budget and ahead of schedule, just remember that. That will allow us to build more."
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The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program has Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps variants. The Ford, CVN-78, is the first of a new class of Navy carriers, and was just delivered to the Navy last month. Neither program was supported or funded in any way by the Coast Guard, the only military service to fall under the Department of Homeland Security instead of the Department of Defense.
Trump's involvement with the F-35 program has been a topic of some controversy. While Trump claimed in January that he had cut $600 million from the final cost of the 90-aircraft low-rate initial production (LRIP) Lot 10 by publicly calling out the program on Twitter and sitting down with program execs, critics and reporters (including this one) were quick to point out that the cost reduction had been predicted a month earlier and was likely due to economies of scale more than Trump's involvement.
In March, the CEO of F-35 maker Lockheed Martin, Marillyn Hewson, said that Trump deserved credit for helping to accelerate deal-making for that lot of aircraft, adding that he had "absolutely" made a difference in the timing and outcome of negotiations.
The extent of Trump's involvement with the Ford remains to be seen. In March, Trump paid a visit to the nearly-finished carrier, giving an address that praised Navy seapower and calling the Ford "a ship like no other."
But in an interview with Time published days ago, Trump talked tougher about the Ford, criticizing its new technologies -- particularly its electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS) catapult.
"It sounded bad to me. Digital. They have digital. What is digital? And it’s very complicated, you have to be Albert Einstein to figure it out," Trump said, according to published interview excerpts. "And I said–and now they want to buy more aircraft carriers. I said what system are you going to be–'Sir, we’re staying with digital.' I said no you’re not. You going to goddamned steam, the digital costs hundreds of millions of dollars more money and it’s no good."
Trump did spend a few moments in his address discussing one program that exclusively belongs to the Coast Guard: its icebreakers. With attention shifting to the Arctic, both the Coast Guard and the Navy have made recent pleas to build more of these powerhouse ships to support operations and rescue missions in the region. Currently, the United States only has one heavy icebreaker: the aging Polar Star, commissioned in 1976.
"Out of the five branches of our Armed Services, it's only the Coast Guard that has the power to break through 21 feet of rock-solid Arctic ice, right? You’re the only ones," Trump said in his address. "And I’m proud to say that under my administration, as you just heard, we will be building the first new heavy icebreakers the United States has seen in over 40 years. We’re going to build many of them."
Currently, the Coast Guard has plans to build three new icebreakers, though these plans are still in the early stages.