Maintenance challenges are severely impacting the mission readiness of the USA’s fleet of Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II stealth fighters.

Analysis performed by auditors at the independent US Government Accountability Office (GAO) found only 55% of the Pentagon’s F-35 jets were able to carry out assigned missions during the period examined.

Depot-level maintenance on the F-35B at Fleet Readiness Center East at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point North Carolina

Source: US Marine Corps

The F-35 depot centre at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point in North Carolina. The Pentagon is heavily reliant on F-35 contractor Lockheed Martin for depot-level maintenance – the most complex category of repairs that are often responsible for making aircraft unavailable for missions

The GAO report, which was released on 21 September, took stock of the approximately 450 F-35s operated by the US military in March 2023. Auditors said the 55% readiness rate from that time is “far below programme goals”, citing an array of maintenance issues with the type.

These include a lack of spare parts, inadequate maintenance training for military personnel and a heavy reliance on contractors for depot-level maintenance – where the most involved or complex repairs take place.

“The Department of Defense [DoD] relies heavily on its contractors to lead and manage F-35 sustainment,” the GAO notes. “However, as DoD seeks expanded government control, it has neither determined the desired mix of government and contractor roles, nor identified and obtained the technical data needed to support its desired mix.”

As an example of contractor reliance, the GAO notes that six of the top 10 components most frequently responsible for preventing an aircraft from being mission capable are repaired primarily by the F-35’s manufacturer Lockheed.

These components include the jet’s Pratt & Whitney F135 engine, the Honeywell Power and Thermal Management System, the integrated core processor and the cockpit canopy.

The GAO notes that a lack of depot capacity to effect needed repairs decreased the F-35 availability rate by up to 10% fleet-wide.

There was only slight variation in readiness levels across the three F-35 variants operated by the US services. The US Navy’s carrier-based F-35Cs had the highest availability rate at 57.2%, with the US Air Force’s F-35As on the low end at 50% mission ready.

The Pentagon’s air vehicle availability goal for the F-35A is 90%, with a goal of 85% for the F-35B and F-35C.

F-35C at the Hill Air Force for depot modifications c USAF

Source: US Air Force

The US Navy’s carrier-based F-35Cs boasted the highest availability rate at 57.2%

According to the GAO, Lockheed is currently responsible for seven of the 12 elements in regular F-35 sustainment, including maintenance planning and management, supply support, managing technical data, providing necessary support equipment and training maintainers.

The oversight agency offered only non-specific recommendations to the Pentagon on how to address the maintenance issues.

Mission readiness has been a long-standing issue for the F-35.

A 2022 report from the GAO found the joint F-35 fleet only achieved the Pentagon’s mission capability goal in two years between 2011 and 2021.

However, that weak performance was actually better than almost every other fighter type in the inventory. Only the Boeing F-15 exceeded the F-35, meeting mission readiness goals in three of the 11 years surveyed.

The problem only looks set to worsen, with the Pentagon planning to eventually acquire an additional 2,000 F-35s.

While the GAO does not suggest any specific fixes to the availability deficit, the agency recommends the Pentagon reassess its approach to F-35 maintenance in several critical areas.

These include intellectual property ownership of F-35 maintenance and operational data, whether the services should take primary responsibility for maintenance over a contractor and what resources the services would need to improve mission readiness.