The U.S. Department of Defense’s new fleet of F-35 Lightning IIs is experiencing spare parts shortages and other sustainment problems that are hurting the readiness of the fighter jets, according to a report released Oct. 26 by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

“Squadron officials at multiple F-35 locations that we visited expressed enthusiasm for the unique capabilities of the aircraft, such as the increased situational awareness that the F-35 provides pilots relative to legacy aircraft and the relative ease with which pilots are able to learn how to employ its tactical capabilities,” the GAO wrote in its report to Congress. “However, DOD is facing several key sustainment challenges that pose risks to its ability to meet current and future warfighter readiness requirements, and these could limit the ability of the military services to fully leverage the capabilities of the aircraft.”

Maintenance staff inspect one of the 10 Luke AFB F-35s sent to Nellis AFB for a training deployment, April 15, 2015. Photo: U.S. Air Force.
Maintenance staff inspect one of the 10 Luke Air Force Base F-35s sent to Nellis Air Force Base for a training deployment, April 15, 2015. Photo: U.S. Air Force.

Due to the parts shortages, F-35s could not fly about 22 percent of the time from January through Aug. 7, or more than double DoD’s goal of 10 percent, the GAO found. In addition, due to delays in standing up repair capabilities at depots, it takes an average of 172 days to fix a part, or about twice the program’s goal.

“According to program office and contractor officials, the shortages of spare parts are due in part to the delays in the establishment of depot repair capabilities, incomplete plans and funding that did not account for the long lead time for parts, insufficient amounts of service funding, and poor reliability of certain parts,” the GAO wrote.

Another challenge identified by the GAO is that the Marine Corps and possibly the Navy will not have adequate maintenance capabilities on ships during their initial F-35 deployments at sea in 2018 and 2021, respectively.

Furthermore, updates to the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS) will likely be delayed, and the system’s development is not fully funded, the GAO said. ALIS provides aircraft health and maintenance action information.

In response to a draft of the report, Kristin French, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for Logistics and Materiel Readiness, wrote that DoD is revising its F-35 sustainment plans, including costs and funding, to address the challenges that the GAO outlined. Changes to those plans could be reflected in DoD’s fiscal year 2019 budget request, due out in early calendar year 2018.

DoD is sustaining more than 250 Lockheed Martin [LMT]-built F-35s and plans to triple that figure by the end of 2021. Ultimately, DoD plans to buy 2,443 jets for the Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy.

F-35 sustainment for the three services is expected to cost $1.12 trillion over 60 years. A Pentagon official recently indicated that DoD is launching a year-long “deep dive” to look for ways to cut the cost of the jet’s production and sustainment (Defense Daily, Oct. 23).