At a time when it is argued that US “Air Force readiness and capacity levels are at all-time lows” and American fighter pilots are flying fewer hours compared to their counterparts in China, the Pentagon and the US lawmakers are worried that Lockheed Martin is not meeting its contractual agreements to supply enough upgraded fifth-generation F-35 fighter jets.
Pentagon officials say that hardware for the Technology Refresh-3 upgrade is not being produced fast enough, and these shortages are slowing deliveries of the F-35’s latest upgrade, which, as a result, would cost “almost US$1 billion more than expected”.
Lt. Gen. Michael Schmidt, the F-35′s program executive officer, said at a House Armed Services tactical air and land forces subcommittee hearing on December 12 that Lockheed Martin is under contract to deliver 52 jets enabled with improvements known as Technology Refresh 3 by the end of this year. But the company has finished construction on 21 of those.
According to Schmidt, “a handful of key components” needed for the TR-3 hardware has ramped up slower than expected, and “the rest of the newest jets are still sitting at Lockheed Martin’s factory in Fort Worth, Texas, waiting for those parts.”
Reportedly, TR-3 upgrades include hardware and software improvements to the F-35, such as better displays, computer memory, and processing power. They are needed for a more expansive upgrade called Block 4, which is supposed to improve “the F-35’s weapons capacity, target recognition, and electronic warfare, among other features”.
It is now said that these software and integration issues will take time up to next June to be sorted out. But it is not a definite timeline, Pentagon officials caution.
Of course, for this delay, Lockheed Martin, the plane’s primary manufacturer, may pay a penalty, though its quantum is not revealed to the public. Besides, the Pentagon has paused negotiations with Lockheed on reaching an agreement for a five-year new sustainment approach for the F-35 fighter fleet.
Incidentally, Lockheed wants to move to a performance-based logistics, or PBL contract, under which the company would be paid to produce outcomes, not provide quantities of parts and services. But a Congressional mandate that the agreement either increases readiness or decreases maintenance costs of the tri-variant fighter has proved to be a stumbling block.
Though Lockheed Martin has said it remains focused on expediting hardware delivery from its subcontractors, US lawmakers are not impressed. Subcommittee chairman Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., said in the hearing that while the F-35 is a “technological marvel,” its repeated delays in fielding capabilities are disturbing. “The program has to do much better,” he added.
“I find it puzzling that a multi-year sustainment contract compared to the annual sustainable contract could not either deliver and drive down costs or increase revenue,” said subcommittee ranking member Rep. Donald Norcross, D-N.J.
The anguish of the US lawmakers is understandable as the fleet of F-35 fighter jets can only fly a little over half the time since maintenance issues keep the aircraft on the ground despite the US and its allies’ growing reliance on the planes.
Reportedly, the fleet’s mission-capable rate — or the percentage of time a plane can perform one of its assigned missions — was 55 percent as of March 2023, far below the Pentagon’s goal of 85 percent to 90 percent. This ratio seems to have not improved in the subsequent months.
Suppose the GAO, an independent Congressional watchdog, is to be believed, the US military has 450 F-35s — variants are used by the Air Force, navy, and Marine Corps — and the Pentagon plans to buy roughly 2,000 more by the mid-2040s, costing US$1.7 trillion over the program’s life cycle, including US$1.3 trillion for maintaining the aircraft. Each of the fighter jets costs the government about US$160 million.
However, the GAO report says that “Maintenance challenges negatively affect F-35 aircraft readiness, ” with the poor level “due in part to depot and organizational maintenance challenges.”
Incidentally, the Pentagon had also budgeted US$75 million for the Engine Core Upgrade, or ECU, program for fiscal 2023. Still, it is said that its proposed budget for fiscal 2024 would increase that to more than US$400 million.
The Engine Core Upgrade program, which seeks to give the fighter jet’s current Pratt & Whitney-made F135 engines more power, thrust, and cooling ability, has enough money to last through roughly February, Lt. Gen. Michael Schmidt has said in the hearing before the House Subcommittee on Tactical Air and Land Forces.
However, financially speaking, the F-35 program is the most optimum. It is said to be less expensive than the four-plus-generation F-15EX, which the US Air Force continues to buy.
F-35 can operate in and around the most advanced SAM systems in the world, it is claimed. A study by the Heritage Foundation, a leading American think tank, says that the F-15E is 10 percent more expensive to sustain than the F-35A.
In any case, the delay in having enough F-35 adversely affects the US Air Force readiness. It is because “the capacity levels are at all-time lows.”
The Heritage study points out that when the Cold War ended, US fighter pilots were logging 200-300 hours a year in brand new F-15s, F-16s, and A-10s, while Soviet pilots were mainly flying dated Sukhoi (Su) and Mikoyan (Mig) aircraft, logging fewer than 130 hours a year.
However, “today, US fighter pilots are getting fewer than 130 hours a year while flying the oldest and smallest fighter fleet in US Air Force history. On the other hand, Chinese fighter pilots are getting more than 200 hours a year in much newer fighter aircraft.
The study concludes that “With a limited number of mission-capable aircraft, and readiness levels on a par with Soviet pilots in the late 1980s, the Air Force needs to be fielding as many viable fighters as it can”.
It sounds logical.
- Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda is Chairman of the Editorial Board – EurAsian Times and has commented on politics, foreign policy, and strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.
- CONTACT: prakash.nanda (at) hotmail.com
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