The US Department of Defence (DoD) has moved to ease a supply chain bottleneck that had made almost half of the world’s F-35 Lightning fighters useless for combat for nearly eight months last year.
The Pentagon has placed an order with Lockheed Martin Corp worth $2.4bn to provide spares for the problematic F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter.
The F-35 is the Pentagon’s most expensive weapons programme ever and is set to cost US taxpayers more than $1tn over its 60-year lifespan. Yet it has also been beset by technical flaws, cost overruns and supply chain disasters.
It has proved one of the most controversial in recent history in procurement terms, with the Air Force General formerly in charge of the project recently saying that manufacturer Lockheed Martin and not the US government appeared to be in charge of the programme.
The F-35 has also become the American military’s most ambitious international partnership, with eight other nations participating in the programme, including the UK and Australia.
In an announcement this week, the DoD said the initial spares would be allocated to the Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, and foreign F-35 users.
But it is not clear if this will ease the chronic parts shortage revealed in an April report by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO).
In the report titled “DOD Needs to Address Substantial Supply Chain Challenges” the GAO said the plan was “falling short of warfighter requirements – that is, aircraft cannot perform as many missions or fly as often as required”.
It said F-35s were unable to even get off the ground around 30% of the time between May and November 2018.
And only around half of F-35s in squadrons around the world were capable of taking part in multiple potential combat missions during this period.
The GAO blamed the situation on F-35 spare parts shortages and difficulty in managing and moving parts around the world.
It said the DoD had a repair backlog of about 4,300 F-35 parts and, while it was trying to improve the reliability of parts, it had not managed to close the gap between operational requirements and what the F-35 supply chain could deliver.
One of the main procurement problems has been that the DoD purchases many F-35 parts years ahead of time.
But the aircraft has been modified so many times because of technical problems that the parts are often no longer compatible with the modified planes.
For example, 44% of purchased parts were incompatible with aircraft the US Marine Corps took on a recent deployment.
The GAO also criticised the global network to supply F-35 parts. “DoD’s networks for moving F-35 parts around the world are immature, and overseas F-35 customers have experienced long wait times for parts needed to repair aircraft. Without a detailed plan for the network, DoD may not be ready to support an expanding fleet,” said the report.
However, it may be difficult to improve this network without significant investment, which could send operational costs soaring.
This is unlikely to be welcomed by customers who are already claiming it is an expensive aircraft to operate and pushing hard for operating cost reductions.
The GAO also revealed the DoD had spent billions of dollars on F-35 spare parts but did not have records for the whereabouts or costs of all the parts it had purchased.
It does not maintain a database with information on F-35 parts the US owns and does not have the data to be able to set one up.
“Without a policy that clearly defines how it will keep track of purchased F-35 parts, DoD will continue to operate with a limited understanding of the F-35 spare parts it owns and how they are being managed,” said the report.
Christopher Bogdan, the Air Force lieutenant general formerly in charge of the programme, was recently quoted in The New York Times as saying that Lockheed, which also manages the supply chain, had “significant power over almost every part of the F-35 enterprise”.
“I had a sense, after my first 90 days, that the government was not in charge of the programme,” Bogdan was quoted as saying. “It seemed that all of the major decisions, whether they be technical, whether they be schedule, whether they be contractual, were really all being made by Lockheed Martin, and the programme office was just kind of watching.” (Emphasis added—Ed.)
In 2012 he said the arrangement between the contractor and procurement officials was the worst he had ever seen, though later he said it had improved.
Media reaction worldwide to the GAO report was mixed, with some saying it could be a breach of security to discuss in detail questions over the F-35’s operational capacity.
Others worried that in the event of a conflict US F-35 operators would be given spare parts as a priority, potentially leading to whole fleets of the aircraft becoming useless. The US denies American aircraft will be given priority for scare spare parts.
Meanwhile, as production of the F-35 scales up, critics fear there will be even more competition for a small pool of spare parts.