The F-35 is facing a parts shortage so extreme it almost kept a F-35 flight instructor grounded for two weeks because of a plastic helmet clip, says Lara Seligmen of Aviation Week & Space Technology. The shortage is causing a domino effect with parts availability, says Lt. Gen. Jerry Harris. There’s already a shortage of pilots, and the two shortages may meet, leading to low readiness levels across the fleet.
At the 33rd Fighter Wing at Eglin AFB, Florida, the Air Force’s other F-35 training unit, maintainers are constantly battling for parts. At Eglin, the backlog is so severe that it is threatening to delay graduating pilots, said Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida during a March 7 hearing of the House Armed Services tactical air and land subcommittee.
“We’ve gotten report after report that the parts are not available to ensure that we’ve got capable aircraft to meet the training syllabus,” Gaetz said. “While we’ve not been late in graduating any pilots yet, I’ve been told that we are rapidly approaching the inability to accomplish the mission.”
Of course, it is not just the training bases that are affected. Overall from January through Aug. 7, 2017, F-35s were unable to fly because they were awaiting parts on average about 22% of the time—more than double the Pentagon’s goal of 10%, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). Overall, the average availability rate for the fleet is 51%, although the reliability of the newer aircraft is drastically higher than the old jets (70-75% vs. 40-50%).
For the U.S. Marine Corps, the operational F-35 squadron that is based at Iwakuni, Japan, also has a big supply problem, according to Lt. Gen. Steven Rudder, deputy commandant for aviation. The availability rate in Marine Attack Squadron 121 is in the mid-50%, he told the March 7 House subcommittee hearing. On the other hand, on “a good day” the F-35 availability at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma is 90%, he said.
Compounding the problem is the fact that the F-35 enterprise does not have enough capacity to repair components “in a timely manner,” because the establishment of repair capabilities at the military depots is six years behind schedule, GAO found. These capabilities were planned to be completed by 2016, but some capabilities have now been delayed until 2022, according to the watchdog.
This creates a domino effect on parts availability, Lt. Gen. Jerry Harris, the Air Force deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements, told the subcommittee.
“We are late standing up our depots to actually turn and fix those parts, so we’ve been going back to the original equipment manufacturers to get new parts most of the time rather than fix them,” Harris said. “So those parts themselves are stacking up.”
The JPO hopes to fix the problem by accelerating the stand-up of an organic government depot repair capacity, primarily to fix subsystems like tires, wheels, and avionics, so the supply chain can focus on spare parts and new production parts, JPO chief Vice Adm. Mat Winter said. This capability will be established in fiscal 2018, he said.
The JPO also spent $1.4 billion in fiscal 2017 to increase spare part purchases, build up repair capacity and improve the speed of repairs, according to program spokesman Joe Dellavedova.
“If you can afford to buy something but you have to keep it in the parking lot because you can’t afford to own and operate it, then it doesn’t do you much good,” Winter said.
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