US military F-35 readiness problems highlighted in aptly timed report

This surely can't be related to that crash debacle over the weekend, right?

The reason a US Marine Corps pilot ejected from his F-35B stealth fighter jet last weekend remains unknown, but a government agency report on the dismal state of the F-35 fleet's maintenance provides a few clues.

According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which coincidentally released its report the same week the search for the now-recovered crashed F-35 was happening, found that the DoD's fleet of the fighter craft "face costly maintenance issues" that have led to an average of just 55 percent of them being ready for action at any given time.

For reference, the DoD's goals for the F-35A is a mission capable rate of 90 percent, while it wants the B and C variants of the F-35, with their more complicated short takeoff and landing and carrier launch configurations, to have an 85 percent rate.

The F-35 fleet, with its variants fielded by the US Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, have been suffering from poor readiness rates due to maintenance challenges at the depot and organizational levels, leading to a backlog of more than 10,000 F-35 components waiting to be repaired. 

At the repair depot level, where aircraft are taken for more serious fixes that can't be done by line repairmen, simply getting the facilities stood up to do repairs is causing a bottleneck. 


A look at reasons the GAO found for the US military's lack of F-35 fleet readiness

"In October 2017, we reported that DOD did not have enough capacity to repair F-35 aircraft parts because it was 6 years behind schedule standing up those capabilities," the GAO said in its most recent report. Years on from that earlier report, the GAO added, the DoD is now "​​nearly 12 years behind schedule standing up those depots."

While facilities have continued to open over the years, F-35 component repair time at depos is still well above the DoD's top-end goal of 60 days: As of February 2023, component repair time was averaging 141 days.

"The primary impediment to improving repair times was a lack of repair material for newly activated workloads," the GAO noted, and while repair leaders expected an increase in material allotments, "officials also told us that they were still years away from achieving the program's goal." The GAO said full depot capabilities aren't expected until 2027.

At the organizational level – we're talking military units doing repairs on the line – mission readiness is being affected by the inability to carry out maintenance tasks for several reasons, primarily a lack of parts, lack of training, lack of technical data and a lack of support equipment available on the flight line.

To put it another way, maintenance units are being hamstrung "as a result of being reliant on the contractor," said the GAO.

So ... let's ditch the contractors?

The F-35's maintenance issues are stark considering there are only around 450 of the aircraft in the US fleet. That said, the DoD has plans to buy around 2,000 more of them as the Lockheed-Martin fighter slowly replaces the rest of the US's aging stock – how in the world is it going to ensure readiness when it can't even handle a fleet the fraction of the size it wants?

The DoD doesn't seem to know either, and that's part of the GAO's concern.

The DoD originally designed the F-35 program with management of sustainment operations placed squarely in the hands of contractors. "However, in recent years, DOD has expressed a desire to have more governmental control over sustainment activities," the GAO noted, with F-35 sustainment being considered for a move in-house due to high costs.

But despite the DoD's desire to move F-35 repairs in-house, and an apparent faster repair speed by military service depots as compared to OEMs, the DoD continues to dither on making key decisions, the GAO said.

A study commissioned by the department found that relying on contractors would be the best path forward, however "officials we spoke to told us that there is no clear consensus within the department on how or whether DoD should implement the findings," the GAO found.

In spite of all these issues, the GAO said the DoD has an October 2027 deadline to transition "all functions relating to management, planning and execution of sustainment activities for the F-35 program to the military departments."

With that deadline looming, the GAO said the DoD needs to do seven things, all of them related to reassessing some element of the F-35's sustainment program. GAO wants the Pentagon to reexamine its F-35 IT sustainment systems, maintenance planning and management sustainment, supply support sustainment, support equipment sustainment, engineering sustainment, and maintenance training and technical data sustainment elements – all of which are currently listed as open.

For its part, Lockheed-Martin wanted us to know that its current reliability and maintenance programs have led to 90 percent of F-35 parts performing better than anticipated, by which it means the aircraft's various components are lasting longer before having to be repaired or swapped.

Regardless of what the DoD plans to do, "we stand ready to partner with the government as plans are created for the future of F-35 sustainment ensuring mission readiness and enabling deterrence," a Lockheed spokesperson told The Register.

The DoD didn't immediately respond to questions; we'll update this story if it does. ®

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