After two decades of struggling to meet the performance requirements for the F-35 fighter and getting the production cost down to acceptable levels, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has discovered the plane supposedly costs too much to fly.
This latest installment in the long-running chronicle of criticism assailing the most successful military aircraft development effort in modern times is summarized in a recent report by the GAO entitled “DOD Needs To Cut Billions In Estimated Costs To Achieve Affordability.”
You would never guess from reading this report that the most common variant of F-35 is already outperforming all other tactical aircraft in reliability, mean time between failures, hours of maintenance needed per flight hour, time required to repair, and percentage returning from missions in a still-capable state.
Somehow, GAO managed to generate 50 pages of dense analysis without mentioning any of this.
It also omitted the fact that F-35 is several times more effective at air dominance, ground attack, suppression of hostile defenses and collection of intelligence than legacy fighters in the joint fleet—while costing roughly the same amount to build.
So key members of Congress are outraged at what seems to be a searing indictment of the Pentagon’s biggest weapons program.
Obviously, this begs the question of why countries like Switzerland keep deciding to buy F-35 rather than other fighters.
The explanation is that Switzerland and the dozen other allies purchasing F-35 have a more balanced understanding of the program than GAO does.
But because GAO is at base an honest and thoughtful organization, you can find the solution to the fighter’s current affordability concerns embedded in the report itself.
You just have to read between the lines.
So here are several reasons the operating and support costs of the F-35 fighter, also known as the sustainment costs, are sure to fall in the future.
I should mention up front that my think tank receives funding from several of the biggest industry players on the program, including airframe prime contractor Lockheed Martin and engine prime contractor Pratt & Whitney.
Supply chain issues will ease as the fleet standardizes. GAO says that the supply chain for spare parts is a key impediment to lowering support costs. That’s true, but it results from the fact that spare parts have been under-funded and the fighter is not yet mature.
Specifically, GAO reports that various iterations of the fighter are operating with “at least 39 different part combinations.” Furthermore, F-35s in training and operational squadrons are using three different versions of mission software—with each version “requiring unique sustainment needs.”
These issues will gradually disappear as all F-35s are modified to the latest configuration, substantially reducing the need for diverse parts and software support.
Air Force proficiency at repairs will improve. The Air Force faces a bigger affordability challenge than the sea services in operating its version of F-35, the most common variant of the fighter. However, Air Force maintenance and support procedures for the fighter are in their infancy, and costs per plane are predictably elevated.
For instance, challenges with the fighter’s engine are concentrated in a component called the power module, which GAO says accounts for 30% of spare parts needs. The defense department concedes it is not adequately staffed to keep up with engine maintenance and therefore it will establish five additional depots for engine support.
As the Air Force and other services build out support infrastructure, train up maintainers, and fully fund spare parts accounts, the improving level of proficiency will drive down sustainment costs.
Support equipment and technical data will become more available. GAO says “flight-line level repair capabilities, though improved, remain problematic due to a lack of technical data and support equipment.”
These are not hard problems to solve. The program simply needs to get necessary technical data and support equipment into the hands of maintainers, over 10,000 of whom have been trained. Such problems are common when new aircraft are being fielded, but once adequate resources are made available, flight-line support will improve markedly.
The ODIN data network will enhance tracking and prognostics. The Autonomic Logistics Information System that supports F-35 operations and support functions is 15 years old, and not capable of fully exploiting information generated by the fleet. A new Operational Data Integrated Network (ODIN) referenced in the GAO report is being developed that will make more effective use of information to predict problems before they occur.
F-35 was conceived to be the most maintainable tactical aircraft in the world, and one facet of that effort was the creation of a global network to report sustainment information. This system collects data from every F-35 in the force, which ODIN will be able to analyze to maximum effect. So sustainment data will be better utilized in the future—assuming Congress stops slashing funding for the new system.
Digital tools will optimize support efficiency. Airframe prime contractor Lockheed Martin has spent $400 million over the last several years to develop a suite of digital tools that can provide fleet analytics, parts management, maintenance scheduling, and the like. GAO appears unaware of the progress this effort has made.
For instance, a new system called Medusa provides deployed signature management and analysis for assuring the aircraft’s stealth features. Creating a fully digital sustainment architecture will make F-35 sustainment easier and cheaper.
The defense accounting system will better capture costs. Although there is abundant evidence F-35 will be less expensive to sustain than legacy fighters, the military services are not adept at comparing the cost of F-35 with older aircraft. The main reason is that all facets of upkeep and repair on F-35 are charged to the aircraft, whereas pods and munitions removed from legacy aircraft for support are not.
This anomaly results from the fact that F-35 is an integrated airframe on which all equipment is carried internally. On an F-15 or F-16, much of the equipment is carried externally and removed for maintenance.
So even though F-35 is typically much easier to repair—maintainers change a card rather than removing the system—it appears more costly in the accounting system. Cost tracking will presumably become more accurate as F-35 populates the fleet. It is curious that GAO, an organization known for its accounting, seems oblivious to the disparities in the current accounting system.
The services will embrace performance-based logistics. The GAO report makes it sound as though reliance on contractors to do maintenance is a major cost driver. Some of the contractor costs are associated with upkeep of the data system that ODIN will replace. However, the Air Force in particular has a long track record of claiming it is more efficient than the companies that built combat systems at sustaining hardware and software.
That isn’t likely, and probably reflects a failure to capture all costs associated with an organic sustainment system. Over time it will become apparent that the kind of performance-based logistics contracts favored by commercial aircraft operators are less costly than trying to prove socialism can work in a military setting. The Air Force is taking steps in that direction with F-35, and will realize major savings as the process unfolds in the future.