Air Force needs to cut $3.7 million in costs per aircraft to make F-35s affordable

Northwest Florida Daily News, Sept 1, 2021 | Jim Thompson
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EGLIN AFB — A Government Accountability Office survey of military bases where fifth-generation F-35 stealth fighter jets are located, including Eglin Air Force Base, contributed to a GAO report issued last month warning that unless “sustainment” costs for throm e jet are reduced, the three U.S. military services that use them may not be able to afford them.

The Air Force alone needs to reduce its estimated costs for maintenance and training, along with equipment needed to support F-35 operations, by $3.7 million per aircraft during the next 15 years, “or it will incur $4.4 billion in costs beyond what it currently projects it could afford” by 2036, according to the GAO analysis titled “F-35 Sustainment: DOD (the U.S. Department of Defense) Needs to Cut Billions in Estimated Costs to Achieve Affordability.”

U.S. Air Force 1st Lt. Ian Woodward, 58th Fighter Squadron F-35A student pilot, prepares to taxi to the runway at Eglin AFB on March 18, 2021. Woodward completed his first flight in the F-35A Lightning II as part of the initial qualification training.
Related:After ‘years of work,’ Eglin Air Force Base is getting a second F-35A squadron

That’s important locally because a second F-35 squadron, the 60th Fighter Squadron, was established just days ago at Eglin. The new squadron, which like the 58th Fighter Squadron at Eglin will train F-35 pilots and maintenance personnel, is slated to bring 24 additional F-35s to the base beginning in the fall.

And at nearby Tyndall Air Force Base near Panama City, three new F-35 squadrons are slated to be added to the 325th Fighter Wing, eventually bringing 72 jets to the base, beginning in 2023.

As of November 2020, more than 525 F-35s had been fielded in the United States and other locations across the world, according to the GAO report prepared for the U.S. House of Representatives Armed Services Committee.

In total, according to the report, 3,300 F-35 aircraft are scheduled to be produced in the coming years, going to the Air Force, Navy, Marines, U.S. military partners in other nations, and to other nations as part of foreign military contract sales by the F-35’s prime contractor, Lockheed Martin.

Of those 3,300 aircraft, 2,500 are currently proposed to be delivered to the three U.S. military services now using the jet.

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The Air Force plans to purchase 1,763 F-35s in the coming years, but according to the GAO report, “Air Force officials told us that the Air Force will not be able to afford the cost of sustaining the 1,763 aircraft it plans to purchase without making dramatic cuts to sustainment costs of the F35A.”

Additionally, according to the GAO report, in a statement that could have implications for the F-35s at or coming to Eglin and the F-35s slated for Tyndall, “Air Force officials also told us that the service’s only available remaining options to meet the affordability constraints are to reduce the total number of F-35A aircraft they plan to purchase, or to reduce the aircraft’s planned flying hours.”

But those officials also told the GAO that “either option would also require a change to the way in which the aircraft was originally intended to be used by the Air Force,” which would “have implications on the force structure and capabilities of the Air Force.”

The GAO report attributes the challenges that the Air Force and other services are facing to four factors: supply chain issues; maintenance issues; the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS), an electronic system that assists in maintenance and training and other aspects of F-35 operations; and the F-35’s engine.

Providing a glimpse of the planned future for Tyndall Air Force Base, this May photo shows a line of F-35 Lightning II fifth-generation fighter jets from the 34th Fighter Squadron preparing to take off from the installation. In the wake of 2018’s Hurricane Michael, which all but destroyed the installation, Tyndall AFB is being rebuilt as a “base of the future.” Part of that rebuilding includes plans to have three F-35 squadrons at the base.
With regard to getting needed parts and supplies in a timely fashion, each of the 11 military bases that responded to the GAO survey connected to the July report, including Eglin, reported that supply chain issues had “negative effects on the readiness or capabilities of their aircraft.”

Beyond that, Eglin and the other 10 F-35 locations, along with the Department of Defense (the GAO does not identify specific installations’ comments in its report) told the GAO that “maintenance challenges are still affecting aircraft performance.”

Broadly, the F-35 locations told the GAO that flight line maintenance personnel “lack access to technical data to conduct certain maintenance activities” and that the locations “lack support equipment to conduct maintenance efficiently.”

With regard to other maintenance issues, 10 of the 11 military installations that participated in the GAO survey — although it’s not clear whether Eglin was one of them — reported ongoing issues with the electronic maintenance system. The GAO report noted that “incorrect, missing, or corrupt electronic records within ALIS continue to affect day-to-day operations on the flight lines,” resulting in some cases in “the unnecessary grounding of ‘healthy’ F-35 aircraft” and “a culture of otherwise unnecessary manual workarounds to circumvent the electronic records problem at the squadron level.”

A 33rd Fighter Wing F-35A Lightning II takes off at Eglin Air Force Base. A recent Government Accountability Office report of a survey of military bases warns that unless sustainment costs are reduced, the three U.S. military services that use F-35s may not be able to afford them.

The DoD has plans for a new system to replace ALIS, but the GAO’s July report states that the DoD “has not yet finalized its strategy” for the new system.

With regard to F-35 engine issues — and, as noted, the GAO report does not identify specific installations, so it is not known whether, or to what extent, those issues exist at Eglin AFB — the GAO report states that “F-35 squadrons removed engines for unscheduled maintenance more often than expected, primarily to repair the power module — a key component of the engine that generates thrust for the aircraft to fly.”

The report concludes with four recommendations for the DoD prior to any declaration that the F-35 program is ready for full-rate production — the point at which control of the manufacturing process, acceptable performance and reliability of the F-35, and adequate sustainment for the aircraft, have been achieved. At present, the move to full-rate production is expected sometime between this year and 2023.

The recommendations, with which the DoD indicates in the report that it “partially” concurs, include some assessment by the military services as to whether any existing or planned cost reductions will help make the F-35 more affordable; how any changes in the military services’ acquisition plans and flying hours for the jet could affect affordability; developing a specific plan with “milestones and resources” for program cost reductions; and developing a “risk management approach” for addressing affordability challenges.