F-35 Aircraft Sustainment:

DOD Needs to Address Substantial Supply Chain Challenges

GAO-19-321: Published: Apr 25, 2019. Publicly Released: Apr 25, 2019.

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maurerd@gao.gov

 

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DOD needs to address supply chain issues with the F-35 advanced fighter jet, the country's most expensive weapons system with projected operating costs of more than $1 trillion.

The U.S. Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy share a pool of spare parts with partners around the world. But shortages, repair backlogs, and mismatched parts are keeping F-35s on the ground. For example, F-35 aircraft were unable to fly nearly 30% of the time from May through November 2018 because they didn't have the parts they needed.

While DOD has taken steps to address these challenges and others, we’ve made 8 recommendations that address these specific issues.

F-35 Lightning II aircraft at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida

An F-35 jet on a runway preparing for takeoff.

An F-35 jet on a runway preparing for takeoff.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Diana Maurer
(202) 512-9627
maurerd@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

What GAO Found

F-35 aircraft performance is falling short of warfighter requirements—that is, aircraft cannot perform as many missions or fly as often as required.

Figure: F-35 Fleet Aircraft Performance, May 2018 November 2018

highlights_5_v2_102524

This lower-than-desired aircraft performance is due largely to F-35 spare parts shortages and difficulty in managing and moving parts around the world:

  • Spare parts shortages and limited repair capabilities. F-35 aircraft were unable to fly nearly 30 percent of the May—November 2018 time period due to spare parts shortages. Also, the Department of Defense (DOD) had a repair backlog of about 4,300 F-35 parts. DOD is taking steps to fix these issues, such as improving the reliability of parts. However, it has not fully determined actions needed to close the gap between warfighter requirements and the performance the F-35 supply chain can deliver.
  • Mismatched parts for deploying aircraft. DOD purchases certain sets of F-35 parts years ahead of time to support aircraft on deployments, including on ships. But the parts do not fully match the military services' needs because F-35 aircraft have been modified over time. For example, 44 percent of purchased parts were incompatible with aircraft the Marine Corps took on a recent deployment. Without a process to modify the sets of parts for deployments, DOD may be unable to meet the services' operational needs.
  • An immature global network to move F-35 parts. DOD's networks for moving F-35 parts around the world are immature, and overseas F-35 customers have experienced long wait times for parts needed to repair aircraft. Without a detailed plan for the network, DOD may not be ready to support an expanding fleet.

In addressing these challenges, DOD must grapple with affordability. The Air Force and Marine Corps recently identified the need to reduce their sustainment costs per aircraft per year by 43 and 24 percent, respectively. DOD has spent billions of dollars on F-35 spare parts but does not have records for all the parts it has purchased, where they are, or how much they cost. For example, DOD is not maintaining a database with information on F-35 parts the U.S. owns, and it lacks the necessary data to be able to do so. Without a policy that clearly defines how it will keep track of purchased F-35 parts, DOD will continue to operate with a limited understanding of the F-35 spare parts it owns and how they are being managed. If left unaddressed, these accountability issues will impede DOD's ability to obtain sufficient readiness within affordability constraints.

Why GAO Did This Study

DOD's F-35 fighter jet provides key aviation capabilities to support the U.S. National Defense Strategy. The F-35 is also DOD's most costly weapon system, with sustainment costs estimated at more than $1 trillion over a 60-year life cycle. The F-35's supply chain has a unique design. Rather than owning the spare parts for their aircraft, the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps—along with eight international partners and other foreign military sales customers—share a common, global pool of F-35 parts that are managed by the prime contractor.

You asked us to review the F-35 supply chain. This report assesses, among other things, the extent to which (1) F-35 performance is meeting warfighter requirements and any challenges related to the availability of spare parts; (2) DOD can effectively manage and move F-35 spare parts to support aircraft around the world; and (3) DOD can account for F-35 spare parts and their costs within the supply chain. GAO reviewed DOD and contractor documentation, analyzed performance data, and interviewed relevant officials.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making eight recommendations, including that DOD determine actions to close the gap between warfighter requirements and F-35 supply chain performance; and address challenges with deployments, global parts movement, and spare parts accountability. DOD concurred with all of GAO's recommendations.

For more information, contact Diana Maurer at (202) 512-9627 or maurerd@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, together with the F-35 Program Executive Officer, the Secretaries of the Air Force and Navy, and the Commandant of the Marine Corps, conducts a comprehensive review of the F-35 supply chain to determine what additional actions are needed to close the gap between warfighter requirements for aircraft performance and the capabilities that the F-35 supply chain can deliver, in light of the U.S. services' affordability constraints. Potential actions could include adjustments to the quantities of parts DOD is planning to procure, or developing a mechanism for providing increased availability of parts to operational units, as a means to mitigate fleet-wide shortages. (Recommendation 1)

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, together with the F-35 Program Executive Officer, the Secretaries of the Air Force and Navy, and the Commandant of the Marine Corps, develops a process to modify the afloat and deployment spares packages, to include reviewing the parts within the packages to ensure that they match deploying aircraft and account for updated parts demand, and aligning any necessary funding needed for the parts updates. (Recommendation 2)

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, together with the F-35 Program Executive Officer, the Secretaries of the Air Force and Navy, and the Commandant of the Marine Corps, revises the business rules for the prioritization of scarce F-35 parts across all program participants so as to clearly define the roles and responsibilities of all stakeholders, the process for assigning force activity designations, and the way in which deviations from the business rules will be conducted. (Recommendation 3)

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, together with the F-35 Program Executive Officer, completes a detailed plan for the establishment of the global network for moving F-35 parts that outlines clear requirements and milestones to reach full operational capability, and that includes mechanisms to identify and mitigate risks to the F-35 global spares pool. (Recommendation 4)

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, together with the F-35 Program Executive Officer, issues a policy consistent with DOD guidance that clearly establishes how DOD will maintain accountability for F-35 parts within the supply chain, and identify the steps needed to implement the policy retrospectively and prospectively—for example, how DOD will obtain the necessary data from the contractor. This policy should provide clarity on how F-35 parts will be categorized, specify how the program will implement DOD regulations, and define prime contractor roles and responsibilities. (Recommendation 5)

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  6. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, together with the F-35 Program Executive Officer, develops a methodical approach to consistently obtain comprehensive cost information from the prime contractor for F-35 spare parts within the supply chain. (Recommendation 6)

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  7. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, together with the Department of Defense Comptroller, the Secretaries of the Air Force and Navy, and the F-35 Program Executive Officer, completes and formalizes a methodology for the U.S. services to use in recording on their financial statements the funds spent on F-35 parts within the global spares pool. (Recommendation 7)

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  8. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, together with the F-35 Program Executive Officer, the Secretaries of the Air Force and Navy, and the Commandant of the Marine Corps, clearly defines the strategy by which DOD will manage the F-35 supply chain in the future and update key strategy documents accordingly, to include any additional actions and investments necessary to support that strategy. (Recommendation 8)

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

 

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