Summary: A recent report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has raised significant concerns regarding the operational readiness and maintenance challenges associated with the F-35 fighter jet program. The GAO's report, titled "DOD and the Military Services Need to Reassess the Future Sustainment Strategy," reveals a troubling state of affairs for this critical military asset. As of March 2023, the F-35 fleet's mission-capable rate stands at a mere 55%, a far cry from program targets. This report underscores the escalating costs, outsourced maintenance practices, and operational delays plaguing the F-35 program.
Mission-Capable Rate: The F-35 fleet's mission-capable rate was reported at approximately 55% in March 2023, falling significantly below established program goals. This operational deficiency is attributed in part to delays in establishing depot maintenance activities, resulting in a backlog of over 10,000 components awaiting repairs.
Outsourced Maintenance: The GAO highlights a concerning trend of outsourcing F-35 maintenance to defense contractors instead of relying on military engineers. This external dependence has contributed to the soaring maintenance costs associated with the program.
Sustainability Costs: The F-35 program's anticipated life cycle cost is projected at a staggering $1.7 trillion, with roughly $1.3 trillion allocated solely for sustaining the aircraft. This budgetary strain raises concerns about the program's longterm viability.
Repair Time: While there have been efforts to reduce repair downtime, the current average repair time stands at 141 days, down from 172 days in 2017 but far from the military's goal of 60 days. Anticipated improvements in repair material availability in the second half of 2023 are expected to contribute to gradual reductions in repair times, although the program's ultimate goal remains distant.
Backlog: The backlog of parts in need of maintenance repairs has surged from 4,300 in 2019 to 10,000 in 2023. This backlog has forced the Department of Defense into the costly alternative of procuring new parts rather than waiting for repairs.
Repair Facilities: The GAO's report reveals that the Pentagon is currently 12 years behind in the operation of its repair facilities. Out of the 68 critical components intended for in-house repair, only 44 are presently managed by the military, with the remainder reliant on contractors. These delays in repair facilities operation are exacerbating repair times, contributing to a mounting backlog, and diminishing aircraft readiness.
Assessment: The F-35 fighter jet program confronts grave operational and financial challenges, necessitating immediate attention. With a mission-capable rate falling far below program objectives, maintenance costs spiraling out of control, and a reliance on outsourced maintenance by profit-driven contractors, a pressing concern emerges regarding the program's impact on national security. The Department of Defense must urgently reassess its sustainment strategy, prioritize repair infrastructure, and mitigate the risks posed by external contractors prioritizing profit over the nation's security interests. Failure to address these issues could potentially compromise the country's defense capabilities and resilience.