More than a decade after the first F-35 took to the air, the US military doesn't have a complete set of maintenance instructions, and spare parts shortages are keeping 22 per cent of the fleet out of the sky.
A new United States' Government Accountability Office (GAO) report comes a week after the US Navy said it may leave 108 of the aircraft in a non-combat state because of a lack of funds.
The GAO report says the aircraft are grounded because of a cascade of problems:
- Department of Defense repair capabilities are running six years behind schedule, resulting in a “part repair” average of 172 days, instead of the 60-90 day objective;
- Between January and August 2017, a spare parts shortage kept 22 per cent of F-35s out of the air;
- The DoD hasn't written either the requirements nor the budgets for some of its “future sustainment contracts” – including those relating to weapons system support;
- There's no funding for initial F-35 ship deployments for the US Navy; and
- Updates to the already-notorious Autonomic Logistics Information System software have been delayed, and “requirements for ALIS development are not fully funded”.
That 22 per cent represents only the average number of aircraft grounded by a lack of spares, so the total proportion of the fleet that can't fly at any given time is almost certainly higher.
The report notes that the DoD is still uncertain about the likely cost to operate and maintain the F-35, warning that the whole-of-life cost of the fleet could exceed a US$1.5 trillion, and adds: “DoD risks overpaying the contractor for sustainment support that does not meet warfighter requirements”.
The lack of technical maintenance data means personnel are often in the dark about how to repair a fault. As the report says:
Officials from one squadron said that the troubleshooting data are sometimes insufficient to pinpoint the issue with the aircraft, which can lead the maintainer to remove a component, order a new part from the contractor, and subsequently find that the new part does not fix the issue—a scenario that is both inefficient and costly.
At one depot, officials told the GAO that 68 per cent of the parts sent back weren't faulty, and since testing the parts takes 10 hours, that adds to repair backlogs.
Navy deployments are even more difficult, since “intermediate-level” repair capabilities are needed on board ship. A lack of budget for that program, the GAO warns, leaves a $267 million shortfall between 2019 and 2023.
As was discussed by Warisboring last week, it's possible as many as 200 F-35s will remain permanently unfit for combat, because “the Pentagon would rather buy new aircraft than upgrade the ones the American people have already paid for”. ®