By Dan Grazier
• A new Government Accountability Office report, released in October 2017, details problems the services are having keeping the F-35 fleet ready for combat. One problem it highlighted was that, at a time when the Pentagon is desperate to ramp up production of new aircraft, the services have to wait an average of 172 days—nearly six months—to repair components for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), when it should only take between 60 and 90 days. While this aspect of the report garnered most of the headlines, the report reveals a much more fundamental and systemic problem involving most of the latest high-tech weapon systems: Defense contractors are creating complicated support systems for the increasingly complex weapon systems the Pentagon buys, which allows the contractors to secure long-term contracts for which they have no competition from other companies.
The F-35 serves as the ultimate example of this arrangement. Under the current plans, the American people will spend $406.5 billion for research, development, and procurement for a fleet of 2,456 F-35s. That is a staggering figure, but it pales in comparison to the costs to sustain the program. These costs are expected to top $1.2 trillion through 2060, the expected lifespan of the program. That is about $30 billion per year. While the sustainment-to-acquisition cost ratio for the F-35 program is roughly equivalent to the historic average of 70:30, the way in which the Pentagon and the contractors reach the 70 percent figure adds more than simple financial costs to the program.
It takes a great deal of effort to keep a complicated aircraft like the F-35 flying. To get a sense of just how much support is required, you only have to look at the latest bid solicitation documents. The support contract for the JSF program is being run though the Naval Air Systems Command, which opened the bid process in March. But this was nothing more than a formality since it was always intended as a sole source contract for Lockheed Martin.
November 30, 2017