In May, the U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report noting the F-35 — the Department of Defense’s most expensive weapon system — is more than a decade behind schedule and $183 billion over original cost estimates.
For the next six or so decades, the Pentagon plans to spend an estimated $1.7 trillion on nearly 2,500 F-35s — operating, maintaining, and repairing the planes, the GAO has said.
When critics look at the F-35, they say they see an increasingly expensive plane plagued by software problems and too many contractors at cross-purposes. In short, a program trying to be all things to all services and all allies.
When advocates consider it, they see an immensely powerful weapon with cutting-edge sensors offering pilots an unparalleled view of battlefields, attracting orders from allies and envy from foes.
“This is actually a highly successful program,” Loren Thompson, a defense industry analyst and chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute in Northern Virginia, told the Dayton Daily News. “The fighter meets all of its requirements for survivability and lethality while costing less to build than a Boeing 737.”
“The aircraft has matured,” then-Canadian Defense Minister Anita Anand said in January when her nation finalized a pact with Lockheed Martin to buy 88 F-35s. “And we see now that many of our allies, eight countries in particular, are using the F-35.”
“It’s the backbone of our attack air fleet,” said Mark Cancian, a retired Marine colonel who today is senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ International Security Program. “When it works, it can be a very effective weapon.”
A ‘Class-A mishap’
On Sept. 17, a Marine Corps pilot ejected from an F-35B he was flying before it crashed in a rural South Carolina field.
The pilot parachuted into the yard of a North Charleston-area home.
“I’m not sure where the airplane is. It would have crash-landed somewhere. I ejected,” reports said the pilot, whose identity has not been released, told a 911 operator minutes later.
“I just rode a parachute down to the ground,” he said. “Can you please send an ambulance?”
As it turned out, the aircraft — which costs taxpayers about $100 million — continued flying some 60 miles before crashing in a field near Indiantown, about two hours from Marine Corps’ Joint Base Charleston.
“How in the hell do you lose an F-35?” U.S. Rep. Nancy Mace, a South Carolina Republican, asked on X, formerly known as Twitter, hours after the crash.
“How is there not a tracking device and we’re asking the public to what, find a jet and turn it in?” she added.
Navy and Marine teams found the crash site after a few days and a recovery effort was launched. A two-day standdown was ordered for the Marine Corps as members searched for the jet.
But Mace isn’t the only one asking questions about the F-35.
“The F-35 Lightning II aircraft is DOD’s most costly weapon system in history,” the General Accounting Office (GAO) wrote in May, about three months before the South Carolina crash, which has been classified a “Class A mishap” by the Department of Defense.
Critics and allies agree there are hurdles to overcome. Among them: The F-35′s supply chain has what the GAO calls a “unique design.”
Rather than owning the spare parts for their aircraft, F-35 program participants share a global pool of parts the government owns and prime contractors manage, the GAO said. These parts are held in more than 50 domestic and international facilities.
“These problems ultimately are solvable,” Diana Mauer, director of defense capabilities and management for the GAO, said in an interview. “The follow-on (questions) to that obviously becomes, how long will it take and at what cost?”
The F-35 program is so large and so important that the GAO has split its oversight responsibilities for the jet, Maurer said.
Maurer and her colleagues examine sustainment and mission capabilities. Another GAO team examines acquisition and modernization.
‘Currently 58% mission capable’
U.S. Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said he expects to see continued progress in the Defense Department’s implementation of the F-35 “life cycle sustainment plan,” what the DOD calls the blueprint to keep F-35s flying in an affordable way.
But that plan is overdue. And the inventory of F-35s surpasses repair capacity, Wittman said.
A key shortcoming of the original F-35 contract, in his view: Allowing data needed to conduct maintenance and repairs to be proprietary to the prime contractor, Lockheed Martin.
“Historically, the original F-35 sustainment plan was a sole-source Total System Performance Responsibility contract with Lockheed Martin, with all sustainment responsibilities being delegated to Lockheed,” the congressman said in a statement sent in response to questions from the Dayton Daily News.
This leaves military maintainers in the awkward position of depending on contractors to fix the plane.
Maurer in particular was critical of a decision made more than 20 years ago to leave sustainment responsibilities nearly exclusively to contractors
“I don’t think anyone today would say, ‘Oh yeah. Our predecessors made that right decision 20-plus years ago,’” Maurer said.
Wittman said he has “full confidence” in Lockheed Martin.
“However, there is much work to do. From the outset, it appears that both the DOD and the prime contractor underestimated and undervalued the immense complexities of overseeing the DOD’s largest and most expensive program,” he said.
This program finds itself blessed — or burdened, depending on one’s point of view — with many partners, formal agreements for operation and governance, multiple customers and thousands of aircraft with diverse capabilities.
Said Wittman: “A critical priority is ensuring that we have the necessary management and governance structures staffed by experts with the appropriate backgrounds to effectively guide and execute this highly intricate program.”
Newer programs like the B-21 and NGAD (Next Generation Air Dominance fighter) appear to have learned these lessons by defining what new planes need without overcomplicating the end product, Wittman said.
In its own statement to this newspaper, the F-35 Joint Program Office said it is working to improve increased MC, or “mission-capable,” rates.
“Our fleet is currently at 58% Mission Capable with a goal of 64% MC by March 2024,” the JPO said.
‘I’m not going to pretend there are easy solutions’
One problem examined in a Sept. 21 GAO report is the lack of spare parts and the number of F-35s sitting on the tarmac “because there just aren’t enough spare parts,” Maurer said.
It is possible to produce and store more spare parts. But that will cost money, “potentially a lot more money,” she said.
“There are definitely trade-offs. I’m not going to pretend there are easy solutions,” she said. “But it’s pretty clear that where they are right now in sustainment for the plane, it’s not sufficient. It needs to be continually improved.
Aircraft-maker Lockheed Martin, with engine-maker Pratt & Whitney, have the lead on most of the F-35′s maintenance functions. The GAO has recommended reassessing that.
In fact, the Sept. 21 report offered seven recommendations, each essentially encouraging the Pentagon to reevaluate roles where contractors have the lead.
The problems are myriad: Buggy software code; overlapping, concurrent efforts at design and more.
“We’re not asking them to do simple things, right?” Maurer said. “We asking them to do in some cases some pretty fundamental things, and they try to get after them. But in some respects, they haven’t made much progress.”
There are a host of problems built into the DNA of the program, that go back to decisions made 25 years ago, she added.
‘The most capable plane fielded by any nation’
As Forbes put it in a August 2023 report, the plane is years behind schedule and some 80% over budget.
There are different variants for different military branches, different sub-versions and production batches.
Lockheed has delivered about 960 of the jets so far to nine countries, with about 630 going to the U.S. military.
U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, declined to comment for this story. But he has been supportive of the F-35 program.
“The F-35 has great reviews in operations both from pilots and from military planners,” he told this newspaper in 2021. “It is the most capable plane being fielded by any nation.”
Mark Cancian, of CSIS, said the U.S. is “kind of stuck with the plane at this point.”
“When the plane works, it’s great,” he said. “The problem is the cost and getting it to work.”
“The problems are real,” he added. “Low availability rates are a problem. The fact that other planes have had this problem doesn’t make it less of a problem.”
By the numbers
An average of $75 million: Unit cost of the Lot 15 and 16 production batches of the F-35, without the Pratt & Whitney engine.
749,250+ flight hours
975+ aircraft delivered
Sources: Lockheed Martin, Air & Space Forces magazine.