F-35 Sustainment Challenges for the U.S. Taxpayer

Airman 1st Class Jake Welty, Wikimedia Commons

This story originally was published by Real Clear Wire

By Jared Conaboy

Real Clear Wire

What is good for defense contractors is not necessarily good for the military, nor the taxpayer, they are supposed to serve. Consider the F-35 program, which was supposed to deliver a jet that would make all other military jets obsolete. It has yet to do so, and the failures of the program sustainability speak to the idea that we need diversity in our procurement.

For one thing, too many F-35 sit idle. At a recent congressional hearing, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall claimed that “55% is the number we have for operational availability” of F-35s. That percentage sounds low; imagine if your car would get you to work only 55% of the time. You would be looking for another option!

But things are even worse than that for the F-35 program. Under further questioning, Kendall and his team admitted that fewer than a third of F-35s are “fully operational.” That tracks with a report from the Project on Government Oversight, which reported this year: “The Pentagon’s top testing office, the Director, Operational Test & Evaluation (DOT&E), recently released its office’s annual report, which showed that the F-35 program has a fleet-wide full mission capable rate of only 30%.”

Under criticism that the F-35 has become a “paperweight,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin responded at another congressional hearing that he disagreed with the characterization and “in the future we should take [and] we should have a different approach” to “get our aircraft operational.” That would seem like the least we, as taxpayers and citizens, should expect.

Another lawmaker, Rep. Donald Norcross, (D-N.J.), notes that the F-35 is “our largest weapons program.” It is certainly the most expensive. “The F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter program remains DOD’s most expensive weapon system program,” the GAO wrote last year. “It is estimated that it will cost over $1.7 trillion to buy, operate, and sustain these aircraft.”

The F-35 is also the Pentagon’s most expansive program, “with more than 1,700 going to the Air Force, more than 420 to the Marine Corps and more than 270 to the Navy,” USNI reports. “The program is expected to move from its acquisition phase to full-rate production next year.”

The F-35 will be a great asset to our national security, but putting all your financial backing in one weapons system doesn’t make sense. F-35 readiness has been negatively affected by maintenance challenges and software issues as of late causing the low capability rates.  From the latest GAO report to congress, the F-35 mission capability rates are being negatively impacted by a heavy reliance on contractors, inadequate training, a lack of technical data, a lack of support equipment, a lack of spare parts and funding prioritization. The report passed recommendations for the Secretary of Defense, along with the Secretary of the Air Force and Navy, to assess primary use of contractors versus military personnel in the maintenance and sustainment of the F-35 program.

The F-35 has significant advanced war fighting capabilities, but unless the jets are utilizing their full capabilities what is that worth to each Combatant Commander? As more jets come off the line a solid plan will be needed to be in place for sustainment to ensure the warfighters are given a Full Mission Capable platform to meet Air Tasking Order Missions at home and abroad.

I flew the F-15Cs for 16 years, which has an unmatched Air to Air combat record. The Eagle is presenting its own sustainability problems as the jets get older and fly past its intended life. In my opinion, the F-15EX, in addition to the F-35 program, should be the future. The FY23 NDAA stopped the retirement of F-22 block 20s until FY27 but continues to retire 65 F-15C/D aircraft, mostly from the Air National Guard.  It appears Congress is not happy with our current fighter fleet numbers and combat readiness, which is why we are still moving forward with buying up to 104 F15EXs. I spent 11 years on Active duty and 10 years in the Air Guard. Historically, the Air Guard is a much cheaper way to maintain and fly fighters, while continuing to preserve combat pilots and maintenance personnel who have years of experience. Buying more F15EX and placing them in the Air Guard would be an easy way to save money for our taxpayers and also keep Combat Capabilities in place for our Homeland Defense Missions as well as supporting Missions overseas.

The United States is certainly spending huge dollars on the F-35, but are we getting the full value yet? I do believe the jet will prove to be a game changer, but it is clearly falling far short today. The military needs weapon systems it can rely on every day to succeed.  Spending billions on a jet, without a reliable sustainment plan of action, is not a responsible use of our taxpayer dollars. Our taxpayers deserve better but more importantly our warfighters deserve better.

Jared “Chowda” Conaboy, Commissioned in 1998 from UMASS ROTC, 21 years in Air Force/ANG with Over 2000 hours in F-15C, Instructor Pilot, and Weapons School Graduate.

This article was originally published by RealClearDefense and made available via RealClearWire.

 

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