Why So Many F-35s Are Sitting on the Ground

Why So Many F-35s Are Sitting on the Ground

REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

The long-term cost of the Lockheed Martin F-35 stealth fighter continues to rise, according to a recent Pentagon assessment, with the lifetime cost of the program now projected to be $1.196 trillion. But higher spending levels don’t appear to be producing better performance for the still-troubled weapon system.

According to a report from the Government Accountability Office this week, the aircraft is “falling short of warfighter requirements” due to serious problems with maintenance and availability.

During an eight-month period in 2018, only about half of F-35s in the U.S. fleet were “mission capable” — defined as able to conduct at least one mission. Less than a third were “full mission capable,” or able to conduct all missions.

A big part of the reason, GAO said, was the lack of spare parts and the difficulty of managing a supply chain that reaches across the globe. Spare part shortages alone were responsible for nearly 30% of the downtime.

Tracking parts is a serious issue, GAO said. The Pentagon “has spent billions of dollars on F-35 spare parts but does not have records for all the parts it has purchased, where they are, or how much they cost.”

Mismatched parts are also a problem, with services struggling to keep up with modifications on the jets that render some spare parts obsolete. The three variations of the jet — different versions for the Air Force, the Navy and the Marines — contribute to the issue as well. As an example, the GAO said that “44 percent of purchased parts were incompatible with aircraft the Marine Corps took on a recent deployment.”

The GAO provided eight recommendations to the Department of Defense for fixing the problem, while warning that failure to successfully address the issue “risks that its F-35 fleet may fall short of the capability needed to support its critical national defense missions in the future.”

Read the full GAO report on F-35 sustainment here