F-35 Delays Leave Air Force Reliant on Aging Aircraft | Citizens Against Government Waste

F-35 Delays Leave Air Force Reliant on Aging Aircraft

The WasteWatcher

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) has been the cause of major headaches at the Department of Defense (DOD) since its inception.  Beyond the inflated costs and poor performance, the JSF’s delays has also forced the Pentagon to rely on aging aircraft meant to be replaced by the F-35.

A small ocean of ink has been spilled cataloguing the many troubles of the JSF.  It has been under continuous development since the contract was awarded in 2001, and has faced innumerable delays and cost overruns.  Total acquisition costs now exceed $428 billion, nearly double the initial estimate of $233 billion, with projected lifetime operations and maintenance costs of $1.727 trillion.

Its late arrival has caused an unsustainable rise in aircraft age.  The average Air Force fighter is approximately 28 years old.  The service’s fleet of F-16s, one of the aircraft meant to be replaced by the F-35, is on average more than 30 years old.

The sustainment of older aircraft has contributed to the Air Force’s poor readiness rates in recent years.  Aware of the problem, Former DOD Secretary Jim Mattis released a memo in September 2018 directing the Air Force and Navy to increase mission-capable rates of four aircraft (including three Air Force platforms) to at least 80 percent by the close of 2019.  The initiative failed and was quickly abandoned by the DOD.  The Air Force’s rates have languished in the low 70s in the last four years, including 71.5 percent in 2021.

Unbelievably, the F-35A, the Air Force’s version of the JSF, has sustained an even lower readiness rate than older service platforms.  In 2021, 68.8 percent of F-35As were mission-capable on average, down from 76.1 percent in 2020, but a marginal improvement from the 61.6 readiness rate in 2019.

Unfortunately, the service’s plan to improve the situation is to double down on the F-35.  The Air Force claims that increasing the speed of acquisition will allow it to more rapidly retire aging aircraft, improving the overall readiness of the fleet.  Improving the JSF’s reliability is also presumably part of the plan.

The only dilemma is that the JSF remains a deeply flawed aircraft.  The fiscal year 2019 DOD Operational Test and Evaluation Annual Report analyzing the JSF revealed 873 unresolved deficiencies including 13 Category 1 items, involving the most serious flaws that could endanger crew and aircraft.  While this is an overall reduction from the 917 unresolved deficiencies and 15 Category 1 items found in September 2018, the report stated that “although the program is working to fix deficiencies, new discoveries are still being made, resulting in only a minor decrease in the overall number of deficiencies.”

Many of the problems with the JSF can be traced to the decision to develop and procure the aircraft simultaneously.  Whenever problems have been identified, contractors needed to go back and make changes to planes that were already assembled, increasing overall costs and further delaying deployment.

Doubling down on the F-35 ignores the root of the problem, the program’s fundamental flaws.  Expediting the acquisition of aircraft still under development will not fix the situation.  The decision is unlikely to address the Air Force’s readiness rate impasse, and does not bode well for the service’s preparation for the Next Generation Air Dominance aircraft, the successor to the JSF.

Unless the DOD learns the appropriate lessons from the JSF, its reliance on older aircraft and overall mission capability rates are unlikely to improve anytime soon.

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