The Military Planes Struggling to Get Off the Ground

The Military Planes Struggling to Get Off the Ground

Flight instruments of a Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II Stealth Fighter.

SourceRichard Baker Farnborough/Alamy

Why you should care

Because those are billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars sitting in the hangar.

The F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter represents the cutting edge of combat aviation technology, and it comes packed with weaponry and superlatives. It’s the only multirole stealth fighter in operation anywhere in the world, an aircraft with “unsurpassed situational awareness” and a plane with more data-sharing capability than any other fighter in history, according to the U.S. Air Force and contractor Lockheed Martin.

Too bad so many of the 270 currently operational wonder planes, each of which costs about $120 million, are sitting in hangars. According to a January report published by the director of operational testing at the Department of Defense:

Only half of the F-35 fleet is fit to fly, which means military hardware worth $16.2 billion — nearly triple the amount that Congress spends annually on the opioid epidemic — is grounded.

And if that money in parked planes went into education? It could pay for four years of tuition, room and board and other expenses at private, non-profit universities for some 86,262 financially disadvantaged but high-achieving high school students, according to cost estimates from the College Board.

Granted, newer planes rolling off production lines are more reliable than earlier jets — 70 to 75 percent versus 40 to 50 percent, according to an October Government Accountability Office report that found the F-35 program hit none of its sustainment performance targets in 2017. The January DOD report was blunter. It noted that “the operational suitability of the F-35 fleet remains at a level below service expectations and is dependent on workarounds that would not be acceptable in combat situations.”

F-35 variants eventually will serve three U.S. military branches — the conventional takeoff and landing F-35A for the Air Force, the short takeoff and vertical landing F-35B for the Marine Corps and the Navy’s F-35C, which can take off and land on aircraft carriers. Not surprisingly, all those models and all that high-tech hardware come with a hefty price tag — more than $1.1 trillion over the life cycle of the program (2006–70). “It’s the most expensive weapons system in the history of the Defense Department,” says Cary Russell, director of defense capabilities and management at the GAO.

The plane’s lack of readiness is due to two main factors: parts supply, which is at 22 percent of its target, and depot repair capacity, which is six years behind schedule, Russell notes. A centralized ordering system that tracks all available working and spare parts globally was intended to boost efficiency and slash costs. Instead of stocking each F-35 base with most of the nuts and bolts needed to keep planes flying, the program requires maintenance crews to place orders with parts central. Alas, there’s no guaranteed overnight or two-day delivery, per Amazon or FedEx. Instead, think weeks or, in some cases, much, much longer. The GAO report noted that “19 percent of F-35 parts have a lead time of more than two years.”

If we were having those kind of [airworthiness] levels with a legacy aircraft, there would be a really big concern.

Cary Russell, director of defense capabilities and management, GAO

Six centralized repair depots were also supposed to save money and increase efficiency, but delays in completing the facilities, in part due to miscommunication in the planning and funding stages, have hamstrung their ability to keep plans flying.

The brass are now putting more priority on the back end — maintenance and repairs — rather than focusing primarily on getting a fighter into the hands of pilots. “We kept the emphasis on production, and we made sure that sustainment was looked at,” said Vice Adm. Mathias W. Winter, program executive officer for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program Office, during his March testimony to a congressional subcommittee, “but we didn’t give it the … scrutiny that it needed … and we are giving that scrutiny now.”

Overall, the Air Force has seen a steady decline in readiness since 2003, Chief of Staff Mark Welsh and former Air Force Secretary Michael Donley wrote in the Fiscal Year 2014 Air Force Posture Statement. Declining numbers of airworthy planes can be attributed to aging fleets — 27 years on average in the Air Force, although some warhorses, such as the B-52 bomber, have a higher readiness percentage than their younger counterparts, Air Force data show.

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A Lockheed Martin F-35.

Source Christophe Archambault/Getty

F-35 availability rates are below average among Air Force fleets. Some of that poor performance can be attributed to a complex plane that’s being deployed while still being developed. The F-35C, for example, won’t ship out on an aircraft carrier until 2021, according to Navy officials.

So far, Joint Strike Fighters have logged only about 100,000 flight hours — half of what a fleet needs to be considered mature. Russell says that makes it difficult to set performance benchmarks for maintenance and operations, given that hardware and software updates are added to new planes in production as well as ones that are in service while the Department of Defense works to improve the efficiency of its F-35 operations.

Still, when it comes to projecting U.S. air power globally, expectations remain high for a plane “designed to achieve unprecedented levels of reliability and maintainability,” as the U.S. Air Force noted on its website in 2014. And so improving readiness remains a priority. “If you look at the [Marine Corps’] F-35B, they’re at about a 15 percent fully mission-capable rate. That’s pretty low considering that their goal is 60 percent,” Russell says. “If we were having those kind of levels with a legacy aircraft, there would be a really big concern.”

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