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F-35 unreliability risks strain on Pentagon budget, tester says

By TONY CAPACCIO | Bloomberg | Published: June 28, 2017

Costs to operate and support Lockheed Martin Corp.'s F-35 will balloon unless the deteriorating reliability of the Pentagon's costliest program improves, according to an assessment from the Defense Department's own testing office.

The aircraft and its parts aren't as reliable as expected, and it's taking longer to repair them than planned, according to the presentation by the director of operational testing for defense officials and congressional aides. About 20 percent of the jets must await spares in depots because suppliers can't keep up with expanding production while fixing returned parts.

Past attention focused on costs and delays in what's now a projected $379 billion program to acquire the planned fleet of 2,443 fighters for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. But operating and maintaining the advanced jets for decades to come presents another set of challenges that may strain Pentagon budgets.

The availability of spare parts for the 203 F-35s already assigned to bases "is getting worse, affecting fly rates" and pilot training, according to the presentation dated May 8 and obtained by Bloomberg News. Reliability metrics linked to "critical failures have worsened over the last year," as improvement "has stagnated."

These trends mean long-term "lifecycle costs" of the aircraft are "likely to increase significantly" over the current $1.2 trillion estimate and affect budgets of the services, according to the presentation, which updated the testing office's annual report released in January.

Joe DellaVedova, spokesman for the Defense Department's F-35 program office, said in an email that since 2015 the office's estimate of annual operating expenses, including flying-hour costs, have decreased 2.2 percent for the Air Force version, 3.3 percent for the Marine Corps jet and 4.2 percent for the Navy model.

"These reductions were the result of improved maintainability and sustainability as the weapons systems matures, the design stabilizes and maintenance" becomes more efficient and effective, he said.

President Donald Trump requested 70 F-35s in his fiscal 2018 budget request, up from 63 last year. The two primary House defense committees signaled this week that they want to add as many as 17 more. Negotiations between Lockheed and the Pentagon are also under way for a "block buy" of 445 of the aircraft for the U.S. and allies.

The testing office presentation provides a snapshot of the reliability, maintenance and availability trends that will in large part determine whether the services and allies can afford to buy all the planned aircraft because most costs are absorbed by long-term operations and support.

"Even if an F-35 squadron can get to where it is needed, what good is it if it can't fly them on missions?" analyst Dan Grazier of the Washington-based Project on Government Oversight said in a March 30 review of the test office's January assessment. "This is one of the most enduring problems of the F-35 program. The fleet has had a notoriously poor reliability track record."

The testing office said in its latest assessment that the trend in aircraft availability for flight test or training missions "has been flat over the past two years" because initiatives to improve reliability "are still not translating into improved availability." Just last week the Marine Corps temporarily grounded operational jets in Yuma, Arizona, over reliability concerns with the program's key maintenance diagnostic system.

The fleetwide availability of F-35s to fly when needed is 52 percent, short of an interim goal of 60 percent as well as the 80 percent needed to start combat testing next year.

DellaVedova didn't dispute the 52 percent, saying availability rates "are expected to increase as newer F-35s are delivered each month." The 52 percent rating is the combined number of newer and older aircraft, he said, and newer aircraft are showing "significantly better reliability and aircraft availability rates."

The 388th Air Force Fighter Wing at Hill Air Force Base in Utah currently says its aircraft are available 73 percent of the time needed, he said.

DellaVedova said the program has also improved its forecasting of spare-parts needs and the time needed to repair parts, "all of which are having a positive effect."

Lt. Col. Roger Cabiness, spokesman for the testing office, said the issues cited in the May 8 presentation persist, although some of the specific numbers cited have changed "as the program continues to work fixes and discovers new deficiencies" during the $55 billion development phase that's scheduled to end early next year.

Cabiness said the newest reliability data, which the test office received after the May 8 briefing, indicates that "overall, the metrics worsened" for Air Force and Marine Corps models while improving for the Navy version. The Air Force is buying the largest number of F-35s.

One key metric is the average number of flight hours between critical failures, those that could render an aircraft unsafe to fly or unable to complete its mission. The goal for the Air Force's F-35 is 20 hours between failures after 75,000 hours of flight. As of August, Air Force models were averaging only 7.3 hours between failures after 34,197 hours of flight, according to the testing office presentation.

Casey O’Neal and Tim Price, both of the 62nd Aircraft Maintenance Unit, prepare to recover the 10,000th hour F-35 Lightning II sortie at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., Sept. 12, 2016.
JAMES HENSLEY/U.S. AIR FORCE

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