In an expansive report released earlier this month, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) has unveiled a disconcerting state of affairs regarding the mission capability of the country’s prized F-35 fighter jets.

According to a 96-page report, the investigative agency found that as of March 2023, only slightly more than half of the F-35 fleet was considered “mission capable,” marking a mission capability rate of approximately 55 percent.

This revelation falls dramatically short of the established targets for the F-35 program, which aimed for a mission capability rate of 90 percent for the F-35A variant and 85 percent for both the B and C variants. The GAO report identifies several key factors contributing to this underwhelming performance.

Maintenance Challenges at the Core

The US Government Accountability Office points to depot and organizational maintenance challenges as the principal culprits behind the F-35’s subpar mission capability rate. The report notes:

“The program was behind schedule in establishing depot maintenance activities to conduct repairs. As a result, component repair times remained slow with over 10,000 waiting to be repaired – above desired levels.”

Moreover, the shortage of spare parts for F-35s within the US military and an alleged overreliance on contractors were identified as significant contributing factors to the fleet’s low mission capability rate.

Two US Air Force F-35A Lightning IIs (Image source: DVIDS)

F-35: The Cornerstone of Defense

The F-35 Lightning II aircraft, often referred to as the F-35, represents the pinnacle of the Department of Defense’s (DOD) fighter aircraft capabilities.

Currently, the DOD operates and sustains approximately 450 F-35s, with ambitious plans to acquire an additional 2,000 aircraft by the mid-2040s.

To support this monumental endeavor, the Defense Department has devised a sustainment strategy that encompasses two levels of maintenance: the organizational level, primarily conducted by operating units for day-to-day sustainment, and the depot level, reserved for the most intricate repairs and overhauls.

However, the colossal scale of the F-35 program comes at a steep cost, with the DOD estimating total expenses to exceed $1.7 trillion over the aircraft’s life cycle. A substantial portion of these costs, roughly $1.3 trillion, is earmarked for sustaining the aircraft.

The F-35 program stands as a joint, multinational acquisition initiative aimed at creating and deploying a new generation of strike fighter aircraft. Participants in this program include the Air Force, the Navy, and the Marine Corps, along with seven international partners, namely Australia, Canada, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, and the United Kingdom, and numerous foreign military sales customers, including, Belgium, Finland, Germany, Israel, Japan, Poland, Singapore, South Korea, and Switzerland.

GAO Recommendations

In response to the dire findings, the GAO has laid out several recommendations to rectify the mission capability rate of American F-35s. These recommendations include a comprehensive reassessment of aircraft maintenance services.

Two Navy F-35C Lightning IIs (Image source: DVIDS)

Additionally, the GAO urged the F-35 Joint Program Office to make a prompt decision regarding whether the government or contractors should assume primary responsibility for the aircraft’s sustainment, emphasizing the need for swift implementation of these changes.

Encouragingly, the US Department of Defense has concurred with all of the GAO’s recommendations, signaling a commitment to addressing the critical issues raised by the report.

Recent Mishap Raises Concerns

The GAO’s alarming findings are made all the more concerning in light of a recent mishap involving an F-35B belonging to the US Marine Corps. Earlier this month, the aircraft went missing in South Carolina, prompting a frantic search operation. While the pilot managed to eject safely, the F-35B remained unaccounted for in the initial 24 hours of the search.

This incident was classified as a “Class-A” mishap, signifying that the aircraft either suffered extensive damage or incurred property damage exceeding $2.5 million.

In response to this grave occurrence, the US Marine Corps promptly issued a two-day stand-down order for all Marine aviation units, mentioning “three Class-A aviation mishaps over the last six weeks.” This stand-down aims to facilitate a thorough reassessment of aviation safety protocols and best practices.

In an official statement, the service further outlined the objectives of the safety stand-down, stating:

“During the safety stand down, aviation commanders will lead discussions with their Marines focusing on the fundamentals of safe flight operations, ground safety, maintenance and flight procedures, and maintaining combat readiness.”

While the statement did not specify the three incidents prompting this decision, it comes in the wake of two fatal accidents from the previous month, including an MV-22 Osprey crash in Australia that claimed the lives of three US Marines and injured several others, as well as the tragic loss of a F/A-18 pilot in California. The situation escalated with a recent F-35 pilot ejection incident.