:: November 2020 Letter ::
“Cancel Order!” President Trump’s nonsensical Air Force One tweet, a few weeks after the 2016 election, started the administration’s chaotic impact on aviation. For better or worse, the chaos just kept going (early on, I chronicled some of it here: tinyurl.com/ycw4bwvu). Since the transition to the Biden administration might not be smooth, here’s a brief guide to aviation policies needing attention by the new folks. I’m going to award Trump points for each item, and a quick word on whether or not change is needed from the new administration. Consider it a final Trump aero report card.
1. The Israel-UAE Abraham Accords, an impressive diplomatic achievement that also adds 50 F-35s to the order book. Points: 500. Well done. Change needed? Nope. Biden & co. should keep the deal going (it just passed a Congressional challenge). There’s no downside, unless you’re selling fourth-generation fighters. Israel secretly likes the idea, since they get to negotiate aid plus-ups as compensation. If Saudi Arabia follows the UAE down this path, that means the high-end export fighter market will be increasingly US-controlled. Still, Biden might take a critical look at Saudi arms sales, due to the Jamal Khashoggi killing and the Yemen conflict.
2. Defense Budget. Not only did Trump boost the topline and force readiness, his administration grew the investment accounts, and RDT&E in particular. Points: again, 500. Solid budgets in the Trump years. Change needed? Nope. Biden’s once-presumed SecDef, Michčle Flournoy, a long-term strategic thinker who would have continued prioritizing transformation, didn’t get the job. Instead, Biden nominated retired Gen. Lloyd Austin. He’s well-regarded, but generals are reluctant to cut programs or force structure, and Democrats also tend to favor job-rich weapons spending. So, we expect Procurement to benefit, at the expense of RDT&E.
3. McAir. The two legacy Boeing fighters did well in the Trump years. He started by criticizing the Super Hornet, but the Navy put it back in the base budget. Historically Congress has always added a few anyway. But the FY 2021 budget, as just passed in NDAA, is the first budget without F/A-18s requested or inserted by Congress since the program began in the 1970s. Also, Trump put the F-15 back in the budget for the first time in decades. Points: 100. Both lines are still alive. Change needed? Maybe. The Kuwait buy means that Congress, or the Navy, have a year or two to make a decision on the F/A-18. As for the F-15EX, I won’t opine on the optimal outcome, for the same reason I won’t stick my face in a hornets’ nest. If the budget softens, the Air Force may have to choose – 48 F-35s and 12 F-15s might not be sustainable annually.
4. Turkey, and the US weapons embargo, impacting the F-35, and more. Trump was sympathetic to President Erdogan (and most authoritarian leaders), but the rest of the US Government objected. Points: Zero. There was no leadership here from Trump. Change needed? Yep. Biden will get tough, and side with Congress, DoD, and the other US agencies. Thus, things will get worse between Turkey and the US. That’s necessary for long-term hope.
5. Taiwan. Trump & co. okayed the F-16 sale to Taiwan. This oft-mooted sale might not have happened without Trump, and helps Taiwan defend itself. It also helps give the F-16 yet another decade. It may survive for two more decades, in fact. Points: 250. Well done. Change needed? Nope. Biden should stay the course.
6. China, the world’s largest jetliner export market. Trump’s people have presided over a remarkable course change, with economic de-coupling, a serious trade and investment fall-off, and growing tensions. Much of the problem comes from the PRC government itself, and they won’t change – President Xi is basically a third-term Trump, with no checks or balances. But Trump and company not only didn’t coordinate their China trade movies with other countries; they completely neglected key allies such as Canada, South Korea, and Australia whenever they faced any heat from China. Points: -500. Change needed? Hell yes. But…
…Biden won’t have much latitude, since the Trump-Biden debates saw disagreement over who would be tougher on China. And, Biden’s USTR appointee, Katherine Tai, is known to be tough on China. The most we can hope for is that ending the Trump administration’s burn-it-all approach, complete with gratuitous personal insults and cheap racism, will create a few de-coupling off-ramps, giving both sides a chance to re-think. And most of all, Biden can work with allies. It is not possible to pursue an America First policy and a Counter-China policy at the same time. And a unilateralist China policy meant Airbus was poised to continue increasing its share of this key market; China hasn’t been de-coupling so much as it has been de-Americanizing. China hasn't ordered a Boeing airplane since 2017.
7. US-EU trade complaints. The Trump approach has been disastrous. To summarize the situation: The sanctions placed on Airbus jets are easily circumvented thanks to the Mobile FACO. Boeing has no equivalent of Alabama in Europe to cover itself with, so it is fully exposed to whatever tariffs Europe imposes (Europe has the WTO’s permission). Points: -200. Change needed? Absolutely. For Boeing’s good, the Biden administration needs to settle this, ASAP.
8. US relations with its allies, and what that meant for national combat aircraft development. Trump was the first US president to question NATO’s Article 5. He never challenged Putin on anything. He put a question mark over the US’s Asian alliances. All of this badly diminished US standing in the world. But it also helped accelerate the development of national fighter programs – the UK’s Tempest, the Franco-German SCAF, South Korea’s KF-X, Japan’s F-X, and others. Points: -450. Change needed? Yes. If the US is again viewed as a serious ally, some of these countries may revert to buying American rather than developing indigenous systems.
9. Canada. Trump went out of his way to vilify our northern neighbor. A barrage of trade complaints, failure to back them in a serious China dispute, and again, personal insults. The Bombardier trade complaint resulted in Airbus getting a great new jet, the A220, for free. Points: -250. Appalling. Change needed? Yes. Biden can and will repair relations with Canada to keep it aligned with the US on China, and to avoid them defecting to Europe for their next fighter buy.
The final Trump aero report card: -50 points. Overall defense good, but commercial bad. And the score is purely aero-related. The damage done to the US’s alliances: incalculable.
Yours, ‘Til The Ivanka Trump Administration Buys Greenland,
© Richard Aboulafia 1997-2006, All rights reserved.