An October 2017 Government Accountability Office report details problems the services are having keeping the F-35 stealth fighter fleet ready for combat. One problem it highlighted was that, at a time when the Pentagon is desperate to ramp up production of new aircraft, the services have to wait an average of 172 days—nearly six months—to repair components for the F-35, when it should only take between 60 and 90 days.
While this aspect of the report garnered most of the headlines, the report reveals a much more fundamental and systemic problem involving most of the latest high-tech weapon systems. Defense contractors are creating complicated support systems for the increasingly complex weapon systems the Pentagon buys, which allows the contractors to secure long-term contracts for which they have no competition from other companies.
The F-35 serves as the ultimate example of this arrangement. Under the current plans, the American people will spend $406.5 billion for research, development, and procurement for a fleet of 2,456 F-35s.
That’s a staggering figure, but it pales in comparison to the costs to sustain the program. These costs are expected to top $1.2 trillion through 2060, the expected lifespan of the program. That’s around $30 billion per year. While the sustainment-to-acquisition cost ratio for the F-35 program is roughly equivalent to the historic average of 70:30 , the way in which the Pentagon and the contractors reach the 70-percent figure adds more than simple financial costs to the program.
It takes a great deal of effort to keep a complicated aircraft like the F-35 flying. To get a sense of just how much support is required, you only have to look at the latest bid solicitation documents . The support contract for the Joint Strike Fighter program is being run though the Naval Air Systems Command, which opened the bid process in March 2017. But this was nothing more than a formality since it was always intended as a sole-source contract for Lockheed Martin.
According to the documents, Lockheed will provide a number of services to support all of the currently fielded F-35s. Under the terms of the contract, the contractor will produce spare parts, support equipment, training materials and infrastructure and manage the Autonomic Logistics Information System, among a great deal else.
The full list shows exactly how much the Pentagon depends on the contractors to keep its weapons and vehicles working properly. And because these contracts are so valuable, the companies have very little incentive to design themselves out of their products by building a system that can be maintained by uniform personnel without the need to depend upon contractors.
Defense contractors are creating complicated support systems for the increasingly complex weapon systems the Pentagon buys, which allows the contractors to secure long-term contracts for which they have no competition from other companies.
The F-35 program is off to a bad start maintenance-wise. According to the GAO report, during the first nine months of 2017, 20 percent of the F-35 fleet was unable to fly because the spare parts they needed were unavailable. Nearly 20 percent of the F-35’s replacement parts require at least two years to be delivered. Lockheed is also late in delivering details on how to perform the necessary maintenance procedures to the services, which makes it difficult for the maintainers at the unit level to properly troubleshoot problems with the aircraft.
One squadron reported maintenance staff pulling parts from the aircraft in the mistaken belief they were broken and ordering new ones from the contractor. An official at one of the depot maintenance facilities that handles major repairs reported that 68 percent of the parts received at their shop did not actually need to be repaired. The process of testing each of these parts at the depots takes nearly 10 hours, so even a single falsely identified broken component contributes to wasted time.
When more than two-thirds of all components coming through the system aren’t really broken, the GAO rather understates the matter by saying it is “both inefficient and can add to repair backlogs.”
The consequences of issues like this are significant. The GAO did not provide exact figures, but they reported the F-35s experience failures resulting in the loss of a mission-critical function at “more than twice the rate expected across all variants.”
The military’s dependence on contractors for basic functions incurs costs far beyond the mere financial. All American service members who have deployed to a combat zone during the war on terrorism have seen the vast numbers of contractors working behind the scenes to support the war effort. In 2007, at the very height of the surge, civilian contractors outnumbered combat troops . By 2016, contractors outnumbered troops by a three-to-one margin .