It should come as no surprise to learn that the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program continues to struggle to provide reliable aircraft.
In a November 13, 2019 hearing before the House Armed Services Committee, Department of Defense (DOD) Operational Test and Evaluation Director Robert Behler stated that none of the three F-35 variants meet the Pentagon’s five key reliability or maintainability metrics. According to Director Behler, “The operational suitability of the F-35 fleet remains at a level below service expectations…for all variants, aircraft are breaking down more often than planned and taking longer to fix.”
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has also found reliability flaws in the F-35 program. According to a November 13, 2019 GAO report, the JSF fleet was grounded around 30 percent of the time between May and November 2018 due to insufficient spare parts. As of November 2018, “there was a backlog of about 4,300 spare parts awaiting repair at depots or manufacturers.”
The JSF program has long served as the posterchild for defense procurement run amok. In development for nearly 18 years and eight years behind schedule, total acquisition costs now exceed $428 billion, nearly double the initial estimate of $233 billion. An April 22, 2019 Bloomberg article noted that the lifetime operation and maintenance costs of the most expensive weapon system in history will total approximately $1.2 trillion, or 20 percent more than the $1 trillion reported in April 2015 by the GAO.
Many of the difficulties with the F-35 program can be traced to the decision to develop and procure the aircraft simultaneously. Whenever problems have been identified, contractors needed to go back and make changes to planes that were already assembled, adding to overall costs. Speaking at the Aspen Security Forum on July 24, 2015, then-Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James stated, “The biggest lesson I have learned from the F-35 is never again should we be flying an aircraft while we’re building it.”
Unfortunately, the Pentagon has repeated this mistake ad nauseam. On October 28, 2019, the DOD announced a $34 billion contract with Lockheed Martin, the prime manufacturer, to procure 478 JSFs. It is highly likely that further money will be needed to retrofit these aircraft, as a June 5, 2018 GAO report found that major technological deficiencies in the JSF still exist. According to the GAO, in its “rush to cross the finish line, the program has made some decisions that are likely to affect aircraft performance and reliability and maintainability for years to come.” These include the choice to address existing flaws after full production is initiated. The report identified 966 “open deficiencies” in the JSF program, including 111 “must fix” problems.
It appears the JSF procurement disaster is set to continue well into the future. Given its track record, taxpayers are unlikely to gain respite anytime soon.