HILL AIR FORCE BASE — A new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office says in-service F-35s were unable to fly nearly 30 percent of the time during a six-month period in 2018 because of part shortages and mismatches and repair backlogs.
Consequently, the GAO study says, the F-35 program is falling short of warfighter requirements.
The less than desirable performance, the report says, is due largely to shortages in spare parts for the next generation fighter and problems with managing and moving the parts that are available around the world.
The difficulties have limited repair capabilities, with the GAO finding that F-35s were unable to fly nearly 30 percent of the time from May to November 2018. During that time, the Department of Defense had a repair backlog of about 4,300 F-35 parts, the report says.
Mismatched parts were also a problem. According to the GAO, the DoD purchases certain sets of F-35 parts “years ahead of time.” But ongoing modifications to the jet have made it so some of the parts don’t fully match the military services’ needs.
As an example, the report says 44 percent of purchased parts were not compatible with aircraft the Marine Corps took on a recent deployment.
The report says “an immature global network” to ship the parts has also contributed to long wait times for overseas F-35 customers.
As the DoD works to address the parts issues, the GAO says they must do so with an eye on affordability.
The Air Force and Marine Corps said they intend to reduce sustainment costs per aircraft per year by 43 and 24 percent, respectively. But the GAO says the DoD has spent billions of dollars on F-35 parts, with no record of where they are or how much they cost.
“Without a policy that clearly defines how it will keep track of purchased F-35 parts, DoD will continue to operate with a limited understanding of the F-35 spare parts it owns and how they are being managed,” the report says. “If left unaddressed, these accountability issues will impede DoD’s ability to obtain sufficient readiness within affordability constraints.”
Hill Air Force Base was on of three locations the GAO used to interview officials and observe F-35 supply and maintenance operations. Hill owns the Air Force’s first operational F-35 fleet.
Col. Michael Miles, 388th Maintenance Group commander at Hill, said despite maintenance and parts issues, the base’s F-35 team has been keeping a frenetic pace.
In May, one squadron of F-35As, airmen and other equipment from Hill’s 388th and 419th fighter wings have deployed to Aviano Air Base in Italy. The European deployment is the wing’s second deployment to the the region. In April 2017, the 34th Fighter Squadron deployed to Royal Air Force Lakenheath in England.
Also in 2017, F-35s from Hill served at Kadena Air Base in Japan. In February of this year, a group of 12 F-35s, maintainers, intelligence officers, weapons crews and support personnel from Hill completed three-week combat exercise known as “Red Flag” — an exercise meant to replicate a battle against near-equal enemies during a large-scale conflict.
A group of Hill F-35s and airmen are currently stationed at Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates, to support the United States Air Force Central Command mission in the Middle East.
“Most of the maintenance issues that may prevent our jets from being fully mission-capable are associated with high-failure parts which have world wide shortages and supply-chain issues,” Miles said. “However, we have been able to maintain a high operations tempo and meet the taskings that the Air Force has asked us to meet, such as deployments, large force exercises, and more — with a 90 percent return-to-flight rate. As of today, we have jets in several different countries all being maintained and flown.”