Air Force F-35 Fleet Facing Low Availability, Logistics Limitations

Lt. Gen. Jerry Harris, the deputy chief of staff for strategic plans, programs, and requirements, speaks Wednesday at a House Armed Services Tactical Air and Land Forces subcommittee hearing. Screenshot photo

The bulk of the Air Force’s F-35A fleet is on an older software suite and is mission capable less than half the time, as the service works to catch up on its maintenance and sustainment, a senior USAF official told Congress Wednesday.

Out of the Air Force’s 130 total F-35As, 100 are on the older Block 2B software suite and have a mission capable rate in the “low 40” percent, Lt. Gen. Jerry Harris, the deputy chief of staff for strategic plans, programs, and requirements said at a House Armed Services Tactical Air and Land subcommittee hearing. The rest are in the upgraded Block 3I and 3F software suites, with these running a mission capable rate in the “60 to 70” percentage range, Harris said.

This includes the operational F-35As that are deployed to Kadena AB, Japan, from Hill AFB, Utah. These are running a mission capable rate “above 70” percent during the deployment.

The Block 3F, the most advanced software suite in the F-35A fleet, is an “awesome improvement in many ways,” with both an improvement in reliability and software that is making “better use of the sensors on the airplane,” Harris said.

“3F is the airplane the aircrew and maintainers were looking for,” he said.

At the same time, the Air Force is still facing issues with the F-35’s Autonomic Logistics Integration System – a series of servers that gather flight information of F-35s and automatically orders parts and maintenance actions. The Air Force knew at the outset of the program that ALIS would have shortfalls and would need to be upgraded, but these upgrades are proving to be “longer and more manpower intense” than expected, Harris said.

The Air Force is in the middle of an in-depth study of ALIS and its shortfalls, which should be completed by the end of the year, he said.

The service was also late in standing up depots for the F-35, which in turn has led to slowdowns and issues in fixing jets and refurbishing parts, at times going back to the manufacturer to make new parts, Harris said.

All of this has not only limited the mission capability rate of the F-35A fleet, but also has led to a hefty price tag. F-35As currently cost about $50,000 per flight hour, varied by which software suite and if the jet is operational or in a training location.