JUST IN: F-35 Sustainment Challenges Take Center Stage

By Jon Harper

Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Chris Drzazgowski

Sustainment issues associated with the F-35 joint strike fighter were under the microscope July 22, with officials highlighting problems and Lockheed Martin executives touting progress.

The program is the largest acquisition effort in Pentagon history, with an estimated price tag of more than $1 trillion. About two-thirds of the lifecycle costs for the stealth jet are expected to come from operations and sustainment.

The U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps are buying different variants of the aircraft. The program also includes eight international partner nations and five foreign military sales customers. Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor, hopes to eventually sell more than 3,000 platforms worldwide.

The price tag for the fifth-generation aircraft has long been a concern for acquisition officials and lawmakers. In recent years, Lockheed and the F-35 Joint Program Office have worked to drive that down. The procurement cost of the F-35A is now about $80 million per unit, making it more competitive with legacy aircraft.

However, officials have highlighted the need to focus on sustainment issues.

“We continue going after the O&S cost of the aircraft. That is very high,” Stephen Sheehy, Lockheed’s vice president for sustainment business development, said during a panel discussion at the virtual Farnborough International Airshow. The airshow is normally held in the United Kingdom but took place online this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, he noted that over the past five years there has been a 38 percent decrease in the operations and sustainment costs that Lockheed Martin is responsible for. A further reduction of 50 percent is expected in the next five years, he said.

The company estimates that it controls 39 percent of the program’s O&S costs, with other program partners responsible for the rest. Lockheed executives say they are working with the U.S. government to achieve similar savings on the remaining 61 percent, with the goal of lowering the cost per flying hour for the F-35A to $25,000 by 2025.

The company has also proposed making a $1.5 billion upfront investment in performance-based logistics, which would save F-35 customers $1 billion over the first five years of the deal and $18 billion in savings by 2040 if that work continues, Sheehy noted.

F-35 maintenance issues were front and center at a July 22 House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing. Committee Chairwoman Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., criticized Lockheed for the “money, time and manpower our military is being forced to spend to address problems with equipment logs for spare parts.”

Electronic equipment logbooks, or EELs, for parts are a key component of the F-35 sustainment enterprise.

They are “similar to a digital medical record,” F-35 Program Executive Officer Lt. Gen. Eric Fick explained during the hearing. “It tells the story of each part from cradle to grave.”

About 1,000 of the 50,000 parts on an F-35 are supposed to contain electronic equipment logs.

“When a part arrives with an incorrect or missing EEL that part is not ready for installation … it takes significant effort and time for maintainers to reconstruct the part history and create a digital record for that part,” he said. This diverts time from scheduled maintenance, increases the probability of human error and adds cost to the program, he noted.

Last year, the Defense Department inspector general found that between 2015 and 2018, more than 15,000 spare parts for the F-35 lacked an electronic equipment log. The Defense Contract Management Agency has determined that Lockheed is responsible for at least $183 million in missing and delayed electronic logs from 2015 through early 2020, said Maloney, who called the situation “unacceptable.”

Lockheed and Pentagon officials said a number of steps are being taken to fix the problem.

“EELs compliance and accuracy has been a well-known challenge and Lockheed Martin is applying significant diagnostic and remediation efforts to address this issue,” said Greg Ulmer, Lockheed’s vice president and general manager for the F-35 program. These problems “do not indicate that a part is flawed, nor are EELs issues caused exclusively by the contractor,” he told lawmakers.

The company has invested over $30 million in automation, tool enhancements, and process improvements to reduce these types of issues, he said, pointing to what he identified as significant progress. In 2019, the percentage of ready-for-issue parts improved more than 40 percent. The company has two additional rounds of corrective actions to incorporate this year, Ulmer said.

Fick said the ready-to-install rate for electronic equipment logs had increased to 83 percent as of June, and the goal is to reach 90 percent later this year. Beginning in 2021, the contracted requirement will be 99 percent.

“Because of program-led EELs corrective actions and other readiness efforts, we are seeing a steady increase in aircraft mission capable rates,” he said.

Fick said the Joint Program Office has been evaluating whether excessive performance fees may have been paid to Lockheed. Discussions are underway but Lockheed has not yet agreed to repay what program officials have determined the company owes as a result of these issues, he said.

Meanwhile, readiness rates are on the upswing, Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord said. The mission capable rate for the F-35 fleet has increased from roughly 60 percent at the beginning of this year to nearly 70 percent in June. The full mission capable rate has risen from below 40 percent to nearly 50 percent during that time frame.

Officials hope that moving away from the F-35’s autonomic logistics information system, or ALIS, to an operational data integrated network known as ODIN will also improve the situation.

“ALIS is a system of systems that serves as the primary logistics tool to support F-35 operations, mission planning and sustainment. It is the system through which EELs are maintained, transmitted and accessed across the fleet,” Lord said. “The department is taking near-term actions to address key degraders of ready-for-issue rate, but the long-term solution to the problem depends on the already underway effort to replace ALIS with a more stable, capable system.”

The first tranche of ODIN is expected to be introduced across the joint strike fighter fleet by the end of 2021.

Topics: Air Force News

Comments (0)

Retype the CAPTCHA code from the image
Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Please enter the text displayed in the image.