The U.S. Department of Defense extended a $98-million contract to Lockheed Martin for the F-35 fighter aircraft manufacturer to develop and propose “production engineering” changes that would increase the performance life of F-35 aircraft parts. The DoD announcement does not specify a delivery date for any changes to be introduced or completed.
The DoD award followed one day after the U.S. government’s General Accounting Office issued a report blaming the F-35 supply program for failing to provide sufficient spare parts and technical data, poor maintenance training of military personnel, and an inadequate network of F-35 repair depots.
According to the GAO, F-35 maintenance and repair problems that cannot be handled by military maintenance units cost the U.S. government billions of dollars annually, and that cost has impeded the military depots from establishing their own effective MRO capabilities for the F-35.
Lockheed’s new contract also calls for it to develop and deliver “retrofit engineering release reports, investigations and subcontractor support for investigations and qualifications” that will contribute to increasing F-35 components’ service life.
The F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter is a series of single-engine aircraft with Stealth capability, and design variants for ground attack and combat. It's deployed by the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Marine Corps, and U.S. Navy, and the defense forces of nearly two dozen allied nations.
It is by far the largest defense program, led by Lockheed and involving hundreds of other manufacturing and technology suppliers. The average unit cost for the aircraft is generally agreed to be about $80 million, though the Pentagon and Lockheed have agreed to lower cost structures on future production rounds.
The maintenance costs related to the F-35 is a matter of separate concern. The Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy have taken delivery of about 500 F-35 jets since the start of production in 2006, and according to Lockheed more than 965 aircraft have been delivered to all program participants. Overall, the F-35 is foreseen providing nearly 2,500 jets to the USAF, USMC, and USN – which the GAO has projected to accrue lifecycle costs over $1.7 trillion.
The Pentagon and Lockheed have fallen out several times in recent years over the maintenance costs, the availability of spare parts and systems, and the reliability of the parts that have been installed or supplied in the F-35 aircraft.
For the Defense Dept. the matter goes beyond cost and relates to the F-35’s availability for service: as of March 2023, according to GAO, the mission-capable rate for all F-35s was 55%.
Within the Pentagon the F-35 program office is known to be working to resolve the readiness problem, but how to assign more maintenance and updating efforts to the services remains a matter of concern.
Reportedly, the DoD has accepted the GAO report’s recommendations for controlling F-35 sustainability, including reassigning responsibilities and changes within the defense branches’ own maintenance-management capabilities, and identifying the resources needed to execute such plans.