Only 51 percent of 628 US F-35s delivered are ‘combat coded’

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Lockheed Martin has fulfilled the delivery of 628 F-35 stealth fighters across all models to the US military. However, a startling report from the Pentagon’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation [DOT&E] indicates that only about 51 percent of these delivered aircraft are geared up for combat missions. Indeed, only 320 of the F-35s can be classified as “combat-coded.” 

Photo by st Lt. Michael Luangkhot

This data is cause for concern, considering the Pentagon’s benchmark for operational capability is set at a minimum of 65 percent. More alarming is the apparent decrease in operational capability, as evidenced by past statistics from March of the previous year. Back then, the DOT&E report pointed out that 55 percent of F-35s were “ready for action,” reflecting a worrying 4 percent decline in operational readiness over nearly a year. 

But there’s more to the problem than meets the eye, according to the latest DOT&E report. It notes that only 51 percent of the delivered F-35 aircraft can successfully complete at least one mission. The figures fall sharply when it comes to handling two or more missions, a key attribute of stealth fighters, with readiness plummeting to 30 percent. To further darken the picture, there were indications several months ago that between 2022 and 2023, a sizable 27 percent of the existing US F-35 fleet was grounded, awaiting replacement parts.

Photo by Amber Arnold / State Journal

Criticisms

Last year, the F-35 program experienced some backlash, triggered when an F-35B of the US Navy mysteriously vanished for over a day. The Department of Defense [DoD] officials conceded that the staggering expenses involved are making the contractor-led maintenance of the F-35 program untenable. Our conversations with several DoD officials revealed a significant apprehension regarding the escalating contractor labor costs within this program. These apprehensions were also well-documented in a thoroughly detailed 96-page report by the GAO on the upkeep of the Joint Strike Fighter. 

There is a rising tide of dissatisfaction within the factions involved in the F-35 program. It appears that the military services have a consistent track record of failing to allocate the necessary resources for maintaining sufficient depot capacity. Insiders informed the GAO that this pitfall would not be fully addressed until 2027. 

Photo credit: Reddit

Gaps in making these depots operational cause multiple issues, such as slow repair timelines, increasing piles of components needing repair, and a drop in aircraft availability, as identified by the GAO. According to GAO’s insights, this insufficient depot capacity translates into a 10 percent dip in the F-35’s mission capability.

Operational capability

The term ‘Full Operational Capability’ [FOC] for the F-35 fighter jets reflects the stage when this aircraft has showcased its capacity to undertake an entire array of mission procedures. These cover everything from air-to-air combat and air-to-ground assaults to electronic warfare and intelligence gathering, as well as surveillance.

Photo by Sergeant Craig Barrett

Different factors influence the duration required for an F-35 to attain full operational capability. These factors include the distinct model of the aircraft, the proficiency of the pilot, and the implemented maintenance and support systems. 

On average, it takes several years for an F-35 to reach full operational capability. This timespan takes into account the necessary phases of production, testing, and delivery of the aircraft. Moreover, it includes the time needed to train pilots and maintain crews effectively.

The process

Before an F-35 can be declared fully operational, it has to pass a series of rigorous tests. These tests are intended to ensure that the aircraft can perform as expected in a variety of combat scenarios. This phase of testing can take several years to finalize. 

After the aircraft has been delivered and the pilots and crews have undergone training, the F-35 still has to go through a period of initial operational capability. During this time, the aircraft is utilized in real-world operations, albeit on a limited basis. This duration allows for any final adjustments or modifications to be made before the declaration of the aircraft as fully operational. 

Lastly, it’s critical to understand that achieving full operational ability is not a one-time event. The F-35 is a highly advanced aircraft, necessitating continuous maintenance and upgrades to maintain peak performance. Therefore, even after being declared fully operational, the work perseveres to ensure that the F-35 stays at the forefront of military aviation technology.

Photo credit: Il Manifesto

Despite the criticism and problems

Despite potential drawbacks, the F-35 has been making waves across international markets since the onset of conflict in Ukraine. The US, in particular, has been dominating European sectors. Recent speculation from French media outlets implies that the introduction of the F-35 fighter jet could become quite a formidable opponent for the European aviation sector. Notably, Portugal is in the process of swapping its current F-16 fighter jets for the acclaimed F-35 model, thus becoming the 14th European country to prefer the US’s advanced stealth jet fighters. 

Such ongoing endorsements are solidifying the F-35’s status as the predominant fighter jet choice within Europe. This brings into question the long-term viability of Europe’s up-and-coming fighter jet innovations. 

Photo credit: Info Aero Quebec

Europe’s advancement in the realm of fifth-generation aircraft technology is somewhat lagging. This delay is largely caused by persistent collaboration issues among European military units on ventures such as the Rafale and Typhoon fighter jets. Consequently, the development timeline for these aircraft stretched across decades from the 1980s up to the start of the 21st century. Coincidentally, this was the same period when the pioneering fifth-generation aircraft, the F-22, was officially put into operation. 

Against the backdrop of widespread defense budget reductions across Europe and the advanced development stage of the F-35 project, an increasing number of European countries are leaning towards the direct procurement of the F-35. This trend sees them renouncing their plans to develop their own fifth-generation aircraft.

The costs will be high

The surge in interest among European nations for the F-35 is understandable. A roundup of the potential buyers includes Germany, Portugal, Romania, Poland, and Greece – all of whom have either recently gained approval or are in the process of acquiring the F-35. However, many analysts foresee considerable financial struggles for these nations, regardless of their economic standing in Europe. Let’s take Germany as a case study. 

Photo credit: Flickr / Samuel King Jr.

The Luftwaffe is looking to integrate the forthcoming F-35As into their air power. To ensure smooth operation of these advanced aircraft, Germany needs to establish the necessary infrastructure. A substantial budget of approximately €525 million has been set aside to enhance the Büchel base. But there’s a catch. 

The actual cost of these enhancements, as it turns out, seems to be grossly underestimated. Wirtschaftswoche, after obtaining budget details from the German Ministry of Defense, rocked the boat with revealing insights on February 15. Their findings are shocking and suggest that the projected cost for modernizing and expanding the Büchel base could be almost double the original estimated amount. 

Experts are predicting a looming budget crunch, asserting that “F-35 infrastructure costs are likely to skyrocket to around €1.2 billion by the year 2027.” This claim was backed by Business Insider Deutschland. When questioned about the initial misleading estimate, the German Ministry of Defense responded that the time constraints had left them with little room to meticulously plan the construction project, thus leading to an “approximate” cost calculation. They also cited the strict security standards imposed by the United States as a key driver of these increased costs. 

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