Saddled with problems, new F-35 fighter jets can’t get enough spare parts

A USMC F-35B at Joint Base Elmondorf-Richardson as part of Northern Edge exercises in 2019 (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

A new government report is flagging more problems with the new generation of fighter jets scheduled to come to Alaska in the next few years. Plagued by cost overruns, technical problems and a lack of accountability, it’s the latest review to find fault with both the product and process behind the F-35 program.

It’s already the Defense Department’s most expensive weapon system. The Pentagon is projected to spend around $406 billion dollars buying its fleet of F-35 fighter jets over the next several years, but it will cost taxpayers another trillion dollars to maintain and operate all those planes during their life cycle. And a report this week from the Government Accountability Office essentially says that is on the low end of estimates.

Alaska is scheduled to get 54 of the new planes, which will be housed at Eielson Air Force Base, and bring an estimated 3,500 military personnel, family members, and contractors to the area.

This is hardly the first time government inspectors have raised concerns about cost overruns and troubling technical problems with the F-35 program. This new GAO report covers some of the contributing factors, and offers recommendations to mitigate them, many of which the agency has made before, only for the Pentagon to take little or no action.

One worsening problem has to do with spare parts. There aren’t enough of them. The military and its primary contractor on the F-35, Lockheed Martin, are trying a novel supply chain model, but it isn’t working well. When crews can’t get the spare parts they need, they can’t fly training missions.

Nor can parts be quickly repaired. The GAO report found that when it comes to building up the capacity to fix broken parts, the Pentagon is currently eight years behind schedule, contributing to substantial backlogs. In a six month period during 2018, investigators found that F-35 aircraft couldn’t fly around 30 percent of the time because of parts shortages. That’s three times higher than the program’s target of 10 percent.

The authors of the report say these and other problems are going to make the F-35s significantly more expensive than the Pentagon is currently calculating. One instance they offer: “Between the program’s 2014 and its 2015 estimates, the costs of initial spare parts over the life cycle increased by $447 million. The lack of cost information continues to be a challenge for DOD.”

But no one can say just how much the overages may eventually hit, because, as the authors note, there is a lack of crucial information within the Defense Department about what the program’s real costs are. One of the core issues they cite is “insufficient planning” around the project.