WASHINGTON: With all the big problems the F-35 has faced — cracked bulkheads, lousy software, ALIS and being 50 percent over budget and very, very late — whoever thought that Lockheed Martin would be called on the carpet for being too slow to issue purchase orders and buy parts.
But F-35 Program Executive Officer Vice Adm. Mat Winter today told the HASC tactical air and land subcommittee that both companies were guilty of just that, adding that this had helped lead to a shortage of an average of 600 parts each month, causing production line slowdowns and cost increases.
Winter told lawmakers he was “hitting a stagnant plateau with Lockheed Martin because they are 600 parts a month behind on average — 600 parts not on the production line when I need them.” Complicating that, he said, is that he needs parts “to fix the airplanes” now that there are more than 400 deployed.
I asked Lockheed for a response. F-35 spokesman Michael Friedman says in an email that the “production line is currently seeing about 96% parts availability and Lockheed Martin is taking aggressive action to build supply chain capacity, reduce supply chain costs and improve part availability both in production and sustainment.” The company is taking a myriad of actions to tighten things up: “supply chain competitions, restructure supplier contracts, build supply chain capacity, pre-fund parts ahead of contract awards, synchronize spare buys, improve parts reliability and maintainability, implement advanced analytics tools, accelerate modifications to earlier aircraft, and support the stand-up of government-led regional warehouses and repair depots.” But the 600 missing parts each month isn’t really addressed in that statement, is it?
On top of those issues, Winter said that workers with certain production skills are being drawn away from military to civilian sector, but he didn’t offer any details.
Oh, and the Pentagon’s top program analyst, the head of CAPE, said there’s no way the F-35 will get its costs down to $25,000 per flying hour by 2025, which is the program’s target.
The current cost per flying hour is $44,000, Winter said, adding that “we are targeting $34,000 in 2024.” A few minutes later, the head of the Pentagon’s powerful Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) office, Robert Daigle, asked lawmakers if he could address those targets. He said CAPE’s estimate was about $36,000 in 2024, pretty close to Winter’s estimate. But, he added, “the department doesn’t see a path” to get to $25,000 by 2025. In fact, their estimate is that flying costs will start to increase again by then because more aircraft will be in need of expensive major depot work.
What does Lockheed say? “We are taking action to deliver on the $25,000 Cost Per Flight Hour (CPFH) goal by 2025 – and see a path to achieving this target,” F-35 spokesman Friedman says. “We’ve reduced the Lockheed Martin-portion of F-35 CPFH by about 15 percent since 2015. Lockheed Martin represents less than half of total O&S costs, and we are partnering with our customers to further reduce costs across the enterprise to meet these joint goals.”
Of course, this all needs to be seen in light of last week’s report by the Government Accountability Office on F-35 readiness rates being hurt by parts problems.
Meanwhile, the battle between Lockheed’s F-35 and Boeing’s F-15X featured prominently during the hearing. Many HASC members have pledged support for the F-35, with roughly one quarter of all 435 House lawmakers pressing appropriators and authorizers to fund 102 F-35s, up from the 78 requested by the Trump Administration. JSF supporters came back again and again with questions about why the Pentagon now wants to buy eight F-15Xs in 2020, with 144 planned in total.
The pointy end of the Air Force spear, the head of Air Combat Command, told the HASC subcommittee that buying the mix of fifth and fourth generation aircraft is “the most cost effective way” for the Air Force to reconstitute its aging fleet. Gen. Mike Holmes noted that the F-15Cs are coming to the end of their useful lives and require expensive and complex work to remain airworthy. Using F-15s will also have the lightest impact on readiness, he said. A National Guard F-15C pilot takes three years to become proficient when he transitions to the F-35. “If you replace F-15Cs with F-15EX it has the least impact on readiness of the force during a transition,” Holmes said.
Will Roper, the head of Air Force acquisition, told the HASC that the planes being bought, based on aircraft bought by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are extremely capable due to $2 billion in upgrades — including AESA radar, a powerful main computer, new avionics and the Eagle Passive Active Warning Survivability System (EPAWSS) — made by those countries, money the US will not have to spend. The F-15X also boasts more weapons stations than does the C model, allowing it carry 22 air-to-air missiles.
The F-15’s being a missile truck working with the F-35’s targeting and cueing sensors is a key reason the Office of Secretary of Defense pressed the Air Force to buy the new model.
In other F-35 news, the director of Operational Test and Evaluation said that the so-called fly-off between the F-35 and the A-10 to show Congress how well they perform the all-important Close Air Support mission had been completed last month. (“This is not a fly-off, because they both have awesome capabilities,” Robert Behler said.) The F-35, he said, is much more survivable, as the Air Force has argued all along. “In a low-threat environment the A-10C, they really do a very good job.” The tests demonstrated what Behler called “very good synergy of the two platforms,” with the F-35 performing like a “min-AWACS.” The biggest thing to come out of the tests may be “new tactics for the fifth-gen fourth-gen mix,” the DOTE told the subcommittee.