Navy Times website reports that the Navy has announced that NAS Lemoore will be the focal point for the F-35’s operation and introduction into the fleet (1). The website article contained some very interesting statements. Read the following very carefully and then we’ll discuss the implications.
“One thing is for sure, an F-35C squadron will have what Douglass [Cmdr. Brian Douglass, F-35C project officer on the staff of Strike Fighter Wing, Pacific] called a few more enlisted maintainers around. Currently, an F/A-18E squadron has anywhere between 226 and 234 sailors assigned. An F-35C squadron will include 245 to 250 sailors.
Most of the extra maintainers are due to the planned creation of a completely new maintenance shop for each F-35C squadron. It will only be responsible for maintaining the outside of the aircraft and will be manned by aviation structural mechanics.
The skin of the F-35C is designed to deflect radar and make it tougher to see by potential enemies. This stealth capability is so important that there will be a complete new shop in the squadron, manned by sailors with special training and skills to maintain it.
‘The low observability of the F-35C is considered a weapons platform and that's going to be a huge mind shift for us to treat the exterior of the airplane and the maintenance with such care,’ Douglass said. ‘It's not that we don't care for the exterior of our aircraft today, but this is on a totally different level, and we want to keep it pristine, because that's part of the weapons capability. That's why we procured this airplane.’ “
Did you catch the reference to the manning increase of around 20 personnel for each F-35 squadron? Recall - what does the Navy claim is the biggest challenge it faces regarding budgets? The answer is personnel costs. In their attempt to address this critical issue (their view, not mine) the Navy has designed the LCS, Zumwalt, and Ford with crews that are hugely undersized and totally inadequate for combat and damage control. Despite being willing to risk the loss of major combat vessels in a bid to decrease manning costs, the F-35 squadrons will increase maintenance manning by 20 people per squadron! You’ll recall that the F-35 was supposed to have a magical, telepathic, all-knowing maintenance program (ALIS – Autonomic Logistics Information System) that would decrease maintenance manning requirements. Instead, we see that the F-35 will require 20 more maintainers per squadron.
Did you also catch what those extra maintenance people would be doing? External stealth maintenance! I thought the F-35 was supposed to be relatively maintenance free as regards its external skin. I guess that wasn’t true.
Now, think about the implication of the stealth maintenance requirement. This is going to upset a lot of people so brace yourself. This admission that the F-35 is going to need large numbers of highly specialized and exquisitely trained extra maintainers just for the stealth aspect means that the fantasy dream that many F-35 supporters have of operating a few F-35s from hidden, disbursed, austere bases is totally unachievable – a complete fantasy. Note the key sentence from the article’s quote,
“It's not that we don't care for the exterior of our aircraft today, but this is on a totally different level, and we want to keep it pristine, because that's part of the weapons capability.”
Note the phrase, “totally different level”, and the word “pristine”. These are not achievable by a few mechanics taking care of planes in an austere jungle base. I have severe doubts that this “totally different level” of maintenance is even achievable in a carrier’s hangar.
Now, there’s nothing surprising about any of this. Did we really think that the F-35 was somehow going to get by with casual, low tech maintenance performed by a cigar-chomping, roadside mechanic with a pipe wrench when the F-22 requires near-surgical operating room precision and cleanliness to maintain?
Supporters, this is the official death knell of the austere basing concept. Embrace it.
Increased manning costs and the end of the austere basing concept (not that it was ever realistic) - the F-35 is the gift that keeps on giving.
(1)Navy Times, “NAS Lemoore prepares for F-35 arrival, more F/A-18s” Mark D. Faram, May 10, 2015