May 03, 2021

Make-or-Break Time for the F-35

Despite solid combat performance, the F-35’s high maintenance costs and ongoing parts supply problems continue to be a drag on the fifth-generation fighter aircraft, giving critics ammunition as Congress readies to receive the Biden administration’s first budget.  

Lockheed Martin is delivering F-35s at rate of roughly 11 a month—about five of which go to the Air Force—and largely on schedule. Operators seem satisfied with its combat performance. But parts problems, engine support issues that will take years to correct, and an evolving performance-based logistics concept suggest a program overhaul may be coming, once the Biden Administration installs its new defense acquisition team.  

In early March, House Armed Services Committee Chairman (HASC) Adam Smith (D-Wash.) wondered aloud at a Brookings Institution event if there was any way to “cut our losses” on the F-35. He called sustainment costs “brutal” and characterized the program as a “rathole.” Mid-month, at a hearing of the HASC’s Readiness subcommittee, Chairman Rep. John Garamendi complained “the entire F-35 system is of enormous concern.” 

“We buy more planes,” Garamendi said, but “we’re not able to maintain the older ones. So the more we buy, the worse overall performance has been. That is going to stop.”

He said Congress would direct the Air Force to provide an “integrated maintenance plan” in the next few months showing that it can smartly manage both new and classified systems, including the F-35. The service must prove that the maintenance needs of new systems are understood and will be properly funded, Garamendi stated. If it can’t, it needs to identify which systems it can do without.