Pentagon officials have said that future sustainment of the Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-35 will require a mix of contractor maintenance and “organic” maintenance by the U.S. Air Force and Navy. At an Apr. 28 hearing of the House Armed Services Committee’s readiness panel, Air Force Lt. Gen. Eric Fick, the head of the F-35 Joint Program Office, said that one option would be for the Air Force and Navy to spend about $500 million for the delivery of parts specifications from the subcontractors who build thousands of parts on the fighter.
About a year ago, DoD charged Lockheed Martin with reaching out to F-35 subcontractors on the provision to the federal government of F-35 parts’ specifications. If that delivery happens, the government could compete the supply of parts, rather than relying on Lockheed Martin’s F-35 parts subcontractors.
“As we have talked with the U.S. [military] services about their role in F-35 sustainment, they have expressed an interest and a desire and an intention to more organically manage the sustainment supply chain,” Fick said during the Apr. 28 hearing in response to a question from Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.). “We need to be able to deliver to them the provisioning and cataloguing data associated with the parts within that ecosystem.”
“It’s a matter of data delivery and being able to have that data delivered is going to cost money, and that money is going to be somewhere in the neighborhood of half a billion dollars divided amongst the services,” Fick said.
Because the F-35 program has “not been able to make that happen” yet, Fick said, the program and DoD are exploring another option outlined by Steve Morani, the acting assistant secretary of defense, during the Apr. 28 hearing. That approach, under DoD’s Pathfinder initiative, is to discover whether the F-35 program can avail itself of parts’ technical data specifications on other platforms at low-cost or for free.
“We have arrangements in place with many of these vendors today where we can leverage those contracts and become that provider,” Morani told lawmakers. “Our FRCs [Fleet Readiness Centers], our NAVSUP [Naval Supply Systems Command], ICP [Naval Inventory Control Point in Philadelphia], the Air Force’s 448th Supply Chain [Management] Wing, they all have those professionals that do that kind of work and have those arrangements so we can leverage those contracts. We don’t want to pay for it twice. We want to move it into the organic supply chain management role because we do that work, and we’re reponsible to you to do that work. If we can do that without paying for the data, that’s the path we wanna go.”
Another issue has been whether maintainers in the field and at depots have all the required technical data to perform repairs. While the maintainers have manuals, if a question arises, such maintainers have to contact Lockheed Martin field representatives to resolve whatever repair issue is at hand, as Lockheed Martin owns such F-35 data rights, not the federal government.
“One of the things that we heard a lot from maintainers in the field–service members on the flight line–is their frustration with limitations on being able to repair the aircraft,” Diana Maurer, the director of the defense capabilities and management team at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), testified during the hearing. “It comes down to very specific things, like, ‘Is this particular part of the F-35 broken enough for us to take it off the plane? If it needs to come off the aircraft, what tool do we use? How do we replace it [the part]? What tool do we use to put it back on?’ Those are the kinds of specific levels of information that’s part of technical data, writ large, and that’s one of the challenges.”
Maurer said that a GAO team had visited Hill AFB, Utah two months ago to speak with F-35 pilots and maintainers.
“One of the most striking things we heard from folks on the ground there was, [after] they had just completed a successful deployment of F-35s to Europe at a time of great national need, and they showed great resilience and creativity in doing that, but what we heard form them was that they did that despite the way the program is set up from a sustainment perspective, and I think that’s a good informal measure of ultimately reaching success, that they’re able to make those deployments successfully because of the way the program is structured for sustainment, and we’re not there yet,” Maurer said.