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​ Capt. Andrew “Dojo Olson, F-35 Demonstration Team pilot and commander performs a high-speed pass in an F-35A Lightning II during the Heart of Texas Airshow April 7, 2019. Air Force photo by SrA. Alexander Cook.

The American F-35 fleet is falling far short of operational readiness goals, and the main culprit is a shortage of parts, according to a new Government Accountability Office report.

By November of last year, the US F-35 fleet—across the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps—was only achieving a full mission capable rate of 27 percent, and a mission capable rate of 52 percent, due to inadequate parts availability, the GAO said. The situation is due in part to older parts being “incompatible” with more recent versions of the F-35, and more broadly, because of an “immature” Defense Department network for moving parts around the world, the GAO found.

The Air Force and F-35 Joint Program Office also have cited the problem of a limited number of suppliers being tasked to produce parts for both older-version F-35s and the newest ones, the result being that the full capacity of industry is not efficiently producing the components.

In the report, the GAO determined there’s a worldwide shortage of F-35 spare parts, noting a repair backlog of 4,300 F-35 items. It also found that while purchases of parts in earlier years were probably adequate, the aircraft has since been modified to reflect design changes, and on a recent Marine Corps F-35 deployment, “44 percent of purchased parts were incompatible” with the version of the jet the marines took to sea.

“Without a process to modify the sets of parts for deployments, DOD may be unable to meet the services’ operational needs,” the GAO said.

The government watchdog recommended the Pentagon leadership review the F-35 supply chain, potentially increase its spares purchases, and assign priority to units getting the parts, among other recommendations.

The Air Force and Marine Corps have informed GAO they need to reduce their sustainment costs on the F-35A and B-model, respectively, by 43 and 24 percent.

Also, while the Defense Department has spent “billions” on F-35 parts, it doesn’t have “records for all the parts it has purchased, including where they are or how much they cost.” The US doesn’t have a database of the F-35 parts it owns, and “lacks the necessary data” to create one. Until it fixes that problem, the DOD “has a limited understanding of the F-35 spare parts it owns, and how they are being managed.” The GAO asserted that if this issue isn’t corrected, “sufficient readiness within affordability constraints” will be hard to achieve.

Rather than DOD owning the F-35 spare parts, they are shared in a “common, global pool” of components among eight partners and four foreign military sales customers that is managed by F-35 prime Lockheed Martin, noted the report.

The Air Force has said that while its collective fleet of F-35s is indeed well below the required mission capable levels, the newest Block 3F models are doing much better, at readiness levels approaching 80 percent. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson has said the service will meet a mandated goal set by former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis of an 80 percent mission capable rate on the F-35, F-16, and F-22 by the end of the fiscal year.

Vice Adm. Mat Winter, director of the F-35 JPO, told Air Force Magazine at the time the GAO report was completed that parts are “the major contributor” to the F-35 readiness issue, and a number of initiatives were underway to increase their number. A major push was to be in faster repair of repairable parts—which happens within the services, at their depots—so vendors could focus more on making new ones. Winter also said the incompatibility issue was being resolved because the various fleets were getting the “tech refresh” updates that would make configurations more common.

GAO offered eight recommendations to the Pentagon, acquisition, and service leadership regarding the readiness issues affecting the F-35:

  • Conduct a “comprehensive review of the F -35 supply chain” to close the gap between the actual and required availability of aircraft. The DOD should consider buying more parts faster, or create a better mechanism for distributing them to units.
  • Along with the JPO director, the Pentagon, Marine Corps, and Navy leadership should review what’s in the “afloat and deployments spares packages,” to make sure they match the F-35B configuration deploying and update the parts packages as needed.
  • Come up with a better way to prioritize “scarce F-35 parts across all program participants,” the responsibilities regarding parts among all “stakeholders,” and develop a plan for dealing with deviations.
  • The Secretary of Defense and his acquisition deputies should build a detailed plan to fix the F-35 sustainment issues that “outlines clear requirements and milestones to reach full operational capability,” and this plan should specifically “mitigate risks” to the parts pool.
  • The SecDef and the acquisition apparatus should develop a plan to track and account for parts in the system, and get the necessary data from Lockheed Martin. The company’s responsibilities should be clearly spelled out.
  • Undersecretary of Defense Ellen Lord and the JPO director should develop a “methodical approach to consistently obtain comprehensive cost information” from Lockheed on F-35 spare parts.
  • All levels should work together to create a formal method to record on their financial statements “the funds spent on F-35 parts within the global spares pool.”
  • All parties should coordinate a strategy for managing the F-35 spares pipeline “and update key strategy documents accordingly,” to include whatever actions are needed to support it.

Although the GAO typically includes responses from the agencies involved, it said it has not yet received action plans in response to the recommendations.

The F-35 JPO was not immediately able to offer a response to the GAO’s report.