The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) does some useful, insightful work. On May 18 this year, the GAO released a report entitled Navy Force Structure: Actions Needed to Ensure Proper Size and Composition of Ship Crews. The GAO has been warning for years that the US Navy’s attempt to cut costs by undermanning its ships is a false economy. Ships’ crews have become permanently tired as the workload for running and maintaining their ships is spread across fewer staff. The collison of the USS Fitzgerald with a merchant ship off Japan came one month later, followed by the collision of the USS John McCain with a tanker off Singapore on August 21.
More recently the GAO released a report on F-35 sustainment. By “sustainment” they mean operating and support costs. It is apparent from that report that the F-35 program is run with insufficient oversight. In the first half of 2017, F-35 aircraft were unable to fly about 22% of the time due to parts shortages. Most things related to the F-35 appear to be underfunded, apart from building the aircraft themselves. For example, from the report:
The Marine Corps’ initial F-35 deployments on ships in 2018, and potentially the initial ship deployments for the Navy, will not include required intermediate-level maintenance capabilities.
So the Marines will put some of their aircraft on ships but to maintain them will have to resort to expensive work-arounds because the required maintenance facilities are unfunded.
The F-35 has been flying for over ten years now but some very basic things are still being sorted out. Maintainers from one squadron have found that troubleshooting data can lead to the removal of a component, the ordering of a new component and then finding that the new part does not fix the issue.
According to program and contractor officials, the immaturity of technical data for troubleshooting maintenance issues could be contributing to the high rate of parts that the F-35 squadrons are sending to the depots for repair that do not actually need to be repaired, resulting in inefficiencies at the depots. For example, officials at one depot we visited said that 68 percent of the parts they receive from F-35 squadrons do not need to be repaired and that the process for testing such parts usually takes nearly 10 hours to complete.
U.S. taxpayers may have paid for the development of the F-35 but they don’t own all the ways to make money from it. From page 18:
program officials told us that once determinations are made about intermediate-level maintenance, the program will have to develop a plan that specifies what technical data rights are needed, and when, to facilitate intermediate-level maintenance, and will then have to negotiate with the contractor to obtain those technical data rights.
In plainer English, it seems that Lockheed Martin owns the intellectual property associated with the F-35 and the US Department of Defense will have to pay Lockheed Martin a yet to be determined sum for the right to maintain the aircraft they have bought and paid for. What applies to the US in this matter applies to us too. The fragility of the F-35 and its logistics system is illustrated by an anecdote in the GAO report:
a contractor official at one site that we visited cited an instance when a military service maintainer towed an aircraft into a hangar and broke a surface panel, resulting in the aircraft not being able to fly for 60 days because there was no surface panel replacement available in the supply chain.
The lack of parts in the system has resulted in a rate of 40 cannibalizations per thousand flying hours for the F-35. Cannibalization in this context refers to the practice of removing parts that are necessary for repair of an aircraft from another aircraft. This triples the amount of work involving in replacing a part.
So far we have touched on problems that could be cured by better management and a higher level of funding. But the report also illustrates the utter contempt with which the F-35 program office is treating its three main customers – the USAF, USN and USMC. From page 36:
For instance, Air Force officials stated that the Air Force specified a desired performance level for AVA (air vehicle availability – meaning aircraft that can at least get airborne) of 65 percent to the program office as a minimum target for its squadrons, but ultimately the program office contracted for a target of 52 percent. Air Force officials said they were not aware of this change until after the contract was negotiated.
Similarly, Navy officials also told us that the program office does not notify the Navy of changes from the estimated costs to the actual contract costs or the requirements that are included during negotiations for sustainment contracts, even when the requirements differ from what the Navy intended. As a result, officials said that the services often have limited visibility into the support that the contractor will provide along with the actual costs for which the services are responsible, until after the contract is signed.
Followed on page 37:
Program officials have acknowledged that the program office has not always provided the services with the level of detail and clarity around costs that the services would like, but said that recently the program has been more focused on communicating with the military services.
Because of that lack of communication, two of the US services requested organizations external to the F-35 program to conduct reviews of the program to better understand their respective portions of F-35 sustainment costs and, in some cases, identify potential opportunities for cost savings. The GAO’s comment on this is that: “reliance on one-time studies by external organizations to help program participants understand their F-35 sustainment costs and associated capabilities is not a practical substitute for the effective communication needed in a program of this magnitude.” There is another interpretation possible – that the F-35 program office doesn’t know the F-35’s sustainment costs (and isn’t particularly concerned either). The F-35 program office’s main concern is keeping the F-35 program going.
The best indication that something is rotten in the state of the F-35 program office is Figure 6 on page 25 of the GAO report which shows the minimum performance targets negotiated between the F-35 Joint Program Office and the Prime Contractor (Lockheed Martin) with the Marine Corps’ desired targets for 2017:
The first column is the proportion of F-35Bs that can get into the air. The Marine Corps’ modest desire was that two thirds of their aircraft be able to fly on any given day. The F-35 program office signed with Lockheed Martin for 46% availability. The actual result was 52.3%. The next column is the most important as it shows the proportion of the F-35B fleet that are able to go to war. Once again the Marine Corps’ ambition was modest with a desire that at least 60 percent of their aircraft would be able to do that. But the F-35 program office signed with Lockheed Martin for only a minimum of 14% to be so capable.
They must have known something because the actual performance in 2017 was 14.9%. Mission effectiveness is the percentage of time that the F-35 components and mission systems affected the successful completion of each assigned mission. The actual result for that metric in 2017 was 79.9%. Applying the mission effectiveness rate to the full mission capable rate means that fewer than one in eight F-35Bs in inventory could successfully complete a mission.
Right at the moment the Marine Corps is committed to lugging F-35Bs into the combat zone, taking up precious space on ships with their enormous logistic footprint, with perhaps one in eight aircraft being able to perform one mission per day. The Marine Corps would be well advised to start considering other options. Perhaps they are. Recently a GMLRS rocket was fired from a HIMARS launcher on the deck of an amphibious ship in the Pacific at a target 70 kilometres away.
Australia should also be looking at its options. Our F-18As are getting clapped out. Even if they were brand new, they would be outclassed by the Su-35s that Indonesia is buying. One third of our Super Hornets are set up for electronic warfare and the rest are really only light bombers. If the F-35s we ordered do turn up in quantity, they will only be able to get in the air occasionally, and unreliably.
Right at the moment the Swedish air force has 60 Gripen C and Ds, with plenty of time left on the clock, which are fated to be scrapped for parts for new-build Gripen Es. If we asked nicely, the Swedes might sell us those at near to scrap value and we could plug the enormous hole in our air force that is coming, at least as an interim measure. But for that to happen, someone in our polity would have to care.
David Archibald’s latest book is American Gripen: The Solution to the F-35 Nightmare