U.S. Lawmakers Vow To Limit F-35 Production

F-35s in flight
An F135 engine backlog and software problems are testing Congress’ patience with the program.
Credit: Tech Sgt. Benjamin Mota/U.S. Air Force

In response to new delays to the F-35 fighter program, senior House Democrats are threatening to limit aircraft production and end the practice of adding funding for aircraft the Pentagon never requested.

The laundry list of program problems includes cost overruns, a large engine backlog at the depots, funding cuts to an already temperamental predictive maintenance system and delays to essential upgrades.

  • Turkey’s exit causes 3% F135 engine cost increase
  • Lockheed Martin waives $60 million fee due to delays

“If this program continues to fail to significantly control and reduce actual projected sustainment costs, we may need to invest in other affordable programs and backfill an operational shortfall of potentially over 800 tactical fighters,” Rep. Donald Norcross (D-N.J.), House Armed Services Committee (HASC) tactical air and land forces subcommittee chairman, said during a hearing on the F-35 program.

Lawmakers would not normally issue a warning about funding a platform beyond the base budget request. However, Capitol Hill has substantively increased the number of F-35s since 2015 to help the program’s production ramp-up. The Pentagon requested 79 F-35s in fiscal 2021, to which Congress added 17 jets, for a total buy of 96 aircraft. In fiscal 2020, lawmakers added 20 jets to the Pentagon’s request of 78 aircraft—for a total of 98 F-35s.

Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), chairman of the HASC readiness subcommittee,  says the previous years’ F-35 quantity increases exacerbated the program’s maintenance problem.

“If anybody suggests a plus-up, there will be one hell of a fight, and I don’t propose to lose it,” Garamendi said during the F-35 hearing. “The program is over budget, it fails to deliver on promised capabilities, and its mission capability rates do not even begin to meet the service thresholds. Industry’s solution to many of these problems is simply to ask the taxpayers to throw money at the problem. That will not happen. The easy days of the past are over.” 

Now that Democrats control the Senate, Garamendi and Norcross may turn the tide and prevent lawmakers from increasing the F-35 quantity in future budget requests. During the fiscal 2021 budget cycle, the HASC failed to convince the other defense committees not to add extra F-35s.

Republican lawmakers also expressed concern about the program, but those who spoke during the hearing did not specify the action they might take. “If our industry stakeholders don’t succeed in quickly driving down the sustainment cost of the F-35, I fear critics of the program will be dealt a stronger hand in their calls to gut the program,” said Rep. Doug Lamborn of Colorado, the top Republican on the  HASC readiness subcommittee.

Lawmakers are concerned about a considerable F135 engine backlog. As of April 8, 20 Air Force F-35s were grounded without a serviceable engine. “These 20 aircraft include six aircraft grounded from months to years awaiting repairs from flight or ground mishaps,” F-35 Integration Director Brig. Gen. David Abba said. “Without mitigation, data suggests 20% of the F-35 fleet will be nonmission-capable (NMC) by 2025 and 43% will be NMC by 2030.”

F-35 Program Executive Officer Lt. Gen. Eric Fick, agrees with Abba’s assessment. Delays in delivering required support equipment and technical data, along with the increased work scope for F135 power module repairs, are driving the depot shortfalls, he said.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) acknowledges that the Pentagon is taking steps to increase depot repair capacity for the F135 power module, but the GAO says the number of capable aircraft will remain an issue in the near term.

The average repair time for a power module was 207 days in October 2020, much longer than the goal of 122 days. Consequently, there was a backlog of 65 power modules at the end of 2020. Scheduled engine removals are projected to increase beginning late in fiscal 2021.

Along with those delays, the cost of the engine is growing. The increase, likely 3% for the 15th production lot, is the result of Turkey being removed from the program after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan opted to purchase the Russian-manufactured S-400 anti-aircraft weapon system.

Turkey was producing high-quality components at low cost. F135 manufacturer Pratt & Whitney had to transition 188 parts Turkey had been making to other nations, including the U.S., according to Matthew Bromberg, Pratt & Whitney military engines president. Of the 188 parts, 20% will be sourced internationally and 80% manufactured in the U.S. 

Meanwhile, the F-35’s logistics system is experiencing yet another round of upheaval. The Pentagon was in the process of transitioning its Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS) to a new cloud-based network, the Operational Data Integrated Network (ODIN), by 2022. But the Pentagon has directed a “strategic pause” for the move to ODIN because of a 42% funding cut in fiscal 2021.

This does not mean the F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO) has not made progress. Lockheed Martin delivered the first ODIN hardware kit for testing to MCAS Yuma, Arizona, in September. The ODIN Base Kit features faster screen times, report processing and debrief times compared with ALIS.

The new hardware kit is 75% smaller and weighs 90% less than the ALIS hardware, and Fick anticipates ODIN will be 30% cheaper. The JPO intends to roll out additional kits this summer.

At the same time, Lockheed Martin continues to update ALIS. The latest iteration includes improvements to the air vehicle transfer times—now measured in minutes instead of days—workflow and user interface upgrades including ALIS Windows 7 to Windows 10 migration and cybersecurity updates.

“In the meantime, until ODIN is fielded, we remain fully committed to ensuring ALIS meets the needs of the maintainers on the flight line,” says Greg Ulmer, Lockheed Martin Aeronautics executive vice president. “Working with the JPO, we’ve established a quarterly software update interval that has enabled far better responsiveness to user needs.”

Other delays plaguing the program include the slowdown of Technology Refresh 3 (TR-3) and Block 4 development. Lockheed Martin waived $60 million in fees because of the delays to TR-3, the hardware providing the F-35 additive processing power, memory and open-systems architecture. The company says the delays were caused by supplier challenges related to the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“As the prime contractor responsible for this program, Lockheed Martin fully owns this issue, and our most senior leadership is tracking these deliverables directly,” Ulmer said.

The lack of recurring annual funding is the reason for the Block 4 delay. Fick maintains that the JPO’s two critical priorities to meet Block 4 capability requirements are delivery of all Lot 15 aircraft in the TR-3 configuration and key elements of the Lot 17 hardware configuration. “The F-35 JPO is also implementing recent Software Independent Review Team recommendations to improve our ability to deliver software-centric capabilities in support of TR-3 and Block 4,” Fick says.

Ahead of the fiscal 2022 budget rollout, analysts seem skeptical about congressional threats to limit production funding. Roman Schweizer, managing director at Cowen & Co., says the F-35 program is facing a time period similar to when it moved from development into low-rate initial production—when high research, development and unit costs created doubts.

“The F-35 has entered a new risk period,” Schweizer writes in a recent note to investors. “Opponents have a lot to grouse about—high [operations and maintenance funding] costs and tech challenges. . . . We’ve always been bullish on the program’s prospects but admit we’re more worried than we have been in a long time.”

Byron Callan, a director at Capital Alpha Partners, says lawmakers are channeling the spirit of the late Sen. John McCain, who was famous for taking a blowtorch to major weapons programs in oversight hearings. “The environment is changing for the F-35 in Congress, and it’s worth revisiting 2023 and beyond scenarios for unit production rates and sustainment revenues,” Callan writes in a note to investors.


Brilliant--limit production so per airplane fly away costs soar, then use those soaring costs to cut the program and go back to your constituents and claim you cut a hugely wasteful program.
Very well written report. The U.S. Armed Forces, Congress and foreign services who purchased the F-35 are having to face the "sunk cost" dilemma. If as Prost stated, the program is cut, the costs soar and capability is diminished. Even if initial unit costs level off, the sustainment costs will most likely increase motivating a significant reason to shift to acquiring unmanned aircraft.
The human crewed tactical fighter is already obsolete. Buying more F-35s is the equivalent to buying battleships in 1950. It's time to kill this wildly expensive program and spend the money on programs which are about the future and not the past.
The threat of cutting funding is the only way to get industry's attention.
Wonderful insights from Ms. Hudson's report. It seems inevitable the delivered cost and lifecycle cost are both increasing regardless of what budget action is taken. The DoD needs to tip the decision in favor of security, mobility, and responsiveness. Expensive weapons have always handicapped nations, and rarely determine the outcome of a conflict. Numbers matter to every warrior, and stockpiling weapons that are not capable, awaiting maintenance/upgrades, and forcing shortages of reliable alternatives will ultimately determine our future military advantage.