The U.S. military’s F-35 fighter jets are infrequently flight-ready amid a major backlog in repairs, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released Thursday.
Only 55% of F-35s in the military’s fleet are mission-ready, far lower than the “mission capable” goal of 85% to 90%, according to the report. The lack of readiness stems from a number of issues, as maintenance depots are disorganized, take too long to perform repairs and often lack the technical and data training to do so.
The report was released days after a rogue F-35B crashed after the pilot switched on autopilot and ejected from the aircraft, which was suffering a temporary “malfunction.” The Pentagon could not locate the aircraft while it was still airborne and called on the public to help find it.
The readiness problem will get worse unless the DOD improves the quality and capacity of its maintenance depots, according to the report. Existing maintenance depots, which heavily rely on defense contractors like Lockheed Martin for parts and information, are disorganized and lack technical data and adequate training programs.
Roughly 73% of parts needed for repair get sent back to suppliers because contractor-managed maintenance depots lack the capacity to utilize them, according to the report. The Pentagon plans to take over the management of the F-35’s maintenance and sustainment strategy by 2027.
The problem has resulted in behind-schedule maintenance activities and a backlog of over 10,000 component parts awaiting repairs. In lieu of waiting for repairs on existing component parts, the DOD has opted to buy new parts, a practice that is not financially sustainable in the long term, according to the report.
The DOD plans to buy 2,000 more F-35s from contractors by 2040, adding to the current fleet of approximately 450 F-35s in the military’s arsenal, according to the report. It will cost the Pentagon nearly $1.7 trillion over the program’s lifetime, $1.3 trillion of which will go toward operation and maintenance.
“We stand ready to partner with the government as plans are created for the future of F-35 sustainment ensuring mission readiness and enabling deterrence,” the Pentagon said in a statement to Bloomberg.
The DOD did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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