As we attempt to understand the JSF (F-35) program and assess the F-35’s role in Navy and Marine operations, it is instructive to look at its closest relative, the F-22 Raptor program and, specifically, the operations and maintenance aspects. A GAO report (1) offers some insight with the following parameters.
- The F-22 has an availability standard, defined as the percentage of the fleet available to perform assigned missions at any given time, of 70.6%. For 2011, the F-22 fleet achieved an availability of 55.5%.
- The F-22 has a maintenance goal, the mean time between maintenance (MTBM), of 3 hours between maintenance events, excluding routine servicing and inspections. This was a contract performance requirement but has never been met. The MTBM as of 2011 was 2.47 hours.
- The F-22 operational and support costs were estimated in 2005 to be $23,282 per flight hour. However, updated projected costs for 2015 are estimated to be $49,549 per flight hour.
What do we learn from this?
- First, and most importantly, modern aircraft are complex machines that are difficult to build, operate, and maintain.
- Promised capabilities will only partially be met (depending on whether you consider unconscious pilots to be a drawback, the F-22 fleet may not even be flightworthy!).
- Maintenance will be far more challenging, time consuming, and expensive than anticipated.
- Aircraft will not be mission ready at anywhere near anticipated or desired levels.
How does this relate to the F-35?
The promised capabilities of the F-35 will only partially be met. We’ve already seen several performance specifications scaled back (G-limits, acceleration, etc.) or simply not met. Some capabilities have already been deferred to future blocks or indefinitely deferred. Some capabilities have been unachievable, thus far, with no sure guarantee that they are even technically achievable (the helmet issue, for example). Some capabilities depend on the capabilities of other platforms that are having their own problems (the F-22’s communications link with the F-35 has been deleted from the F-22 modernization program – not sure exactly what that means since I don’t follow Air Force matters closely – maybe someone can explain that issue?).
|F-22 - Predicting the F-35's Future?|
F-35 maintenance will be every bit as challenging as the F-22’s maintenance. In fact, the F-35 maintenance will be more challenging. Think about it. The F-22 is maintained on large, well equipped bases with a large pool of technicians and civilian experts to draw on and large stockpiles of spare parts, spare engines, stealth materials, and diagnostic instruments with maintenance performed under scrupulously clean conditions. In contrast, the F-35 will be maintained in grimy, salty carrier hangars or Marine bases with much smaller supplies of spare parts and a limited pool of technicians. For instance, the Navy has noted that none of the resupply (UNREP) ships has the capability to transfer the F-35 spare engines to a carrier and only one carrier, the Ford, has the capability to receive and handle the spare engines even if the resupply vessels could provide the engines. Stealth maintenance has proven to be a severe challenge for the F-22 and will prove every bit as challenging, if not more so, for the F-35.
There is no reason to expect that F-35 availability will be any better than the F-22. Even the F-22’s goal of 70% is a very low level of availability. The Navy’s (and Marine’s) inherent lack of maintenance, parts, and manning will only exacerbate the problem. The F-35 will be fortunate to achieve 50% availability.
How does all of this help us assess the F-35’s role in fleet and Marine operations?
For one thing, it tells us that the fantasy of stationing a few F-35’s here and there on austere or disbursed bases is just that, a fantasy. Without access to high tech, well stocked bases with large pools of highly skilled maintenance techs backed by civilian experts, the F-35 availability is going to plummet. Throw in actual combat conditions (deferred maintenance, combat damage, insufficient spare parts, challenging conditions, etc.) and availability is going to be in the 30% range. The F-22 is only 50% now so it’s not much of a reach to make that prediction. Further, the availability, whatever it may start as, will only decrease over time in a combat situation as damage, shortages, and cumulative wear take their toll. Austere or disbursed basing is a fantasy after the first couple of sorties. If you think otherwise then you’ll have to explain what miracle is going to elevate the F-35 maintenance and availability over the Air Force’s pampered F-22 levels under wartime conditions as just described. This is just a common sense exercise. Layer on the logistical difficulties of supplying multiple tiny bases under wartime conditions when we’ll have enough trouble supplying our major bases (you may have noticed that we don’t have much of a merchant marine fleet anymore) and the whole austere/disbursed basing concept becomes unworkable.
This takes us directly to the Marine’s vision of their future. The Corps appears to be betting heavily on becoming an expeditionary air force. Unfortunately, the preceding argues against that unless the Marines want to co-habit Air Force bases (as was done during Desert Storm) in which case one has to ask why we need a Marine air force. The Marine Corps’ self-vision is truly baffling.
Now, what about the Navy’s plans for the F-35? Setting aside questions about the suitability of the F-35 for the Navy mission, the Navy is looking at an aircraft that is going to be largely a hangar queen due to the difficulties of providing the demanding level of maintenance that such an aircraft requires. Again, to think otherwise requires a belief in miracles that the Air Force has thus far been unable to perform. To be fair to the Navy, they do seem to be less than totally enthused about their acquisition of the F-35. They won’t have much choice but to accept the aircraft although they seem to be doing everything they can to delay and, ultimately, reduce the required buy.
You’ll note that this is not F-35 bashing. Instead, I’m looking at the nearest actual data point, the F-22, and making reasonable extrapolations. It’s not bashing; it’s a realistic assessment. That the assessment is less than favorable is just the way it is. Kill the program, not the messenger!
(1) Government Accountability Office, “Tactical Aircraft F-22A Modernization Program Faces Cost, Technical, and Sustainment Risks”, GAO-12-447, May 2012