‘It’s a New Aircraft — Why Is It At 55%?’: American Lawmakers Increasingly Impatient With F-35’s Poor Availability Rates

A growing number of lawmakers in the United States House of Representatives have raised concerns regarding the ability of the F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO), which manages the development of the Western world’s sole production stealth fighter, to fix serious issues with the aircraft’s availability rates in a timely manner. Leading House lawmaker Rob Wittman, who serves as chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on tactical air and land forces, stated on September 29 that his patience with the issue was wearing thin. He highlighted at the time that F-35 program executive officer Lieutenant General Michael Schmidt hadn’t “shared with us any of the details, or the granularity of what you would want to know about how he’s going to ensure that gets accomplished… I would say that the expectation about what would be a reasonable period of time to do that is probably coming quickly to a close.” “I think we’ve tried to be patient, given them some room,” the chairman added, stating when asked if his patience was running out: “it’s at the very end of what would be reasonable, in the patience shown, yes.”

A Government Accountability Office report in September outlined some of the numerous problems undermining the F-35’s availability rates and causing difficulties with maintenance, concluding that availability rates were just 55 percent – a rate far poorer than fourth generation fighters and comparable only to the highly troubled F-22 Raptors. Wittman called the Office’s recent findings “deeply concerning,” stressing that “there’s a lot of what we expect out of the aircraft, and there’s some shortcomings there about what has been promised and then what is being delivered.” “Where has the due diligence been performed on this program with the Air Force and the JPO, on making sure that it meets these performance parameters? There’s several places where it has fallen short,” he added. With fighters’ availability rates generally declining over their decades long service lives, meaning the F-35 as the only fighter acquired in significant numbers since 2005 should have by far the highest availability rates in the Air Force, this has made its low availability rates particularly outstanding. “It’s a new aircraft — why is it at 55%?,” Wittman stated, explaining: “You would think on a new production line, … you would learn pretty quickly what your maintenance and repair models would be. All of those things seem to be lacking in this. It seems to be, just get the aircraft off the assembly line and let the Air Force essentially operate on its own afterwards.” “That’s a disconnect about how you need to make sure that you’re managing the lifecycle cost of that aircraft,” he added.

Pentagon reports have repeatedly highlighted that the F-35 suffers from poor reliability and that its high operational costs could make it unaffordable in the numbers initially expected to be purchased. With the life cycle costs of all planned and current F-35s combined expected to cost the Pentagon $1.3 trillion, the U.S. Air Force has been seriously considering deep cuts to planned orders for the aircraft. As by far the most expensive weapons program in history at over $1.7 trillion, the F-35 has been considered ‘too big to fail,’ with China’s fielding of fast growing numbers of similarly capable J-20 fighters with increasingly advanced capabilities leaving the U.S. with few alternatives due to the lack of other NATO compatible post-fourth generation fighters. Frustrations with the F-35 program, and particularly with its availably rates and the very serious delays faced throughout development, have been widely raised by lawmakers for over a decade. In the program’s earlier stages then chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee John McCain called the F-35 “a textbook example’ of the country’s “broken defence acquisition system,” stressing in a briefing to the Senate that “the F-35 program’s record of performance has been both a scandal and a tragedy with respect to cost, schedule and performance.” 

More recently House Armed Service Subcommittee on Readiness Chairman John Garamendi stated at the hearing regarding issues with the F-35 in May 2022: “I will not tolerate it any longer. I’ve been watching the F-35 for a decade and it has not been solved. It has not gotten the attention necessary to sustain this 1.7 trillion dollar platform. It has not occurred, plain and simple. We’re going to go off and buy new bright shiny airplanes and they’re going to be flying probably well for a few months and then they’re going to wind up with a problem.” He slammed the suggestion that the F-35 switch to reliance on a different engine from another producer, saying it would likely result in two different engines that both “don’t work.” “Maybe the engine is not working, which is a Pratt & Whitney problem,” he said of the current producer. “They’re going to be before this committee soon. If they’re in the audience and if they’re listening, watch out. I’m coming at you in a very angry mood. You give us an engine and it doesn’t work, well it worked for a little while until it gets some dust around and then it doesn’t work. What the hell? What’s going on here?” New information on shortcomings with the F135 have emerged since, with the engine not only causing fighter unavailability at 600 percent the rates of fourth generation fighters in the U.S. Air Force, but also costing tens of billions of dollars in additional operational costs and being wholly insufficient to power the F-35. Issues with the F135 are expected to grow significantly as the new F-35 Block 4 production batches will require significantly more power, and thus strain the already underpowered engine significantly more.