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    Wittman says patience wearing thin on F-35 sustainment plan

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    WASHINGTON — A leading House lawmaker wants to see some hard details — and soon — from the F-35 Joint Program Office about how it plans to fix the jet fighter’s long-lagging availability rates.

    And Rep. Rob Wittman’s patience with the JPO on the fighter’s low readiness is starting to wear thin, he said in an interview.

    Speaking to Defense News in his Capitol Hill office on Sept. 29, Wittman, the Virginia Republican who chairs the House Armed Services subcommittee on tactical air and land forces, said he thinks the JPO’s “war on readiness” plan is “the right idea.”

    Lt. Gen. Michael Schmidt, the F-35 program executive officer, told Wittman’s subcommittee in a March hearing that the plan would “mature sustainment processes and maximize F-35 availability for decades to come.”

    But Schmidt didn’t offer more details at that hearing on what the plan would entail.

    Since then, Wittman said, his committee hasn’t heard much more to flesh out the idea.

    “In a general sense, [Schmidt] has the right idea in mind” on the war on readiness, Wittman said. “He hasn’t shared with us any of the details, or the granularity of what you would want to know about how he’s going to ensure that gets accomplished.”

    Defense News has repeatedly asked the JPO for an interview on its plans for the war on readiness, so far without success.

    If the JPO has used the last six months to work with F-35 manufacturer Lockheed Martin and nail down its plans for how to fix the fighter’s disappointing availability rates, Wittman said, that would be understandable and time well spent.

    “But I would say that the expectation about what would be a reasonable period of time to do that is probably coming quickly to a close,” Wittman said.

    “I think we’ve tried to be patient, given them some room,” Wittman continued. When asked if his patience is running out, he said, “it’s at the very end of what would be reasonable, in the patience shown, yes.”

    In a statement provided to Defense News Tuesday, Schmidt said the war on readiness is solving problems with the top issues that degrade F-35 performance, and consolidating the fighter’s inspection requirements to reduce future maintenance needs.

    The JPO is conducting “readiness health assessments” to figure out unique challenges partners, services and sites are having, and tell leadership about those problems so they can come up with plans to fix them, he said.

    The JPO also stood up an F-35 Readiness Control Board to tackle persistent and emerging problems that drag down the fighter’s availability. Such boards are a common best practice in the Navy and commercial aviation, Schmidt said.

    “The entire enterprise, including the services, our international partners, [foreign military sales] customers, and our industry partners are utilizing a data-driven approach to drive improvements across the sustainment enterprise to improve readiness,” he said. “These recent actions continue moving us towards establishing the enduring mission capability our fleet requires.”

    A Government Accountability Office report from September, which outlined numerous problems hindering the F-35′s availability and difficulties with the jet’s maintenance, said that the mission-capable rate for all F-35s was 55% earlier this year. That is well below the Air Force’s goal of having 70% of its F-35As available to carry out their missions, and the Navy and Marine Corps’ goal of 75% for its F-35B and C variants.

    In Tuesday’s statement, Schmidt said the F-35 fleet is now at 58% mission capable, and has a goal to reach 64% by March 2024.

    Wittman plans to have a hearing by the end of the year to hear more from the JPO on how it expects to solve problems with the jet’s sustainment and availability rates, and other issues with the F-35.

    Wittman said he expects Schmidt to come to that hearing ready to explain how his readiness plan would work.

    “I would want some specificity,” he said. “At this particular point, they’ve had enough time to examine the problem, to understand it.”

    Wittman called the GAO’s recent findings “deeply concerning.”

    “There’s a lot of what we expect out of the aircraft, and there’s some shortcomings there about what has been promised and then what is being delivered,” Wittman said. “Where has the due diligence been performed on this program with the Air Force and the JPO, on making sure that it meets these performance parameters? There’s several places where it has fallen short.”

    He plans to have a GAO representative appear at the hearing, and is talking with the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Donald Norcross of New Jersey, about adding GAO to the witness list.

    ‘Mind boggling’

    Wittman wants GAO to share its perspective on the F-35′s readiness issues with the subcommittee, “and then to ask the JPO and the Air Force why they’re in this position, or if there’s a disagreement on the assertions and the findings of GAO, then what’s their viewpoint?”

    The breadth of problems highlighted in GAO’s report — such as a lack of spare parts and depot capacity for the military to repair broken parts, and the military’s difficulty in obtaining necessary technical data that makes it hard for its maintainers to fix the fighter — are worrying, he said.

    The 55% mission-capable rate for the F-35 fleet is unacceptable, Wittman said, and the fact that these problems are happening in the face of the fighter’s $1.7 trillion life cycle cost, $1.3 trillion of which comes from its operation and sustainment, is “mind boggling.”

    “It’s a new aircraft — why is it at 55%?” Wittman said. “You would think on a new production line, … you would learn pretty quickly what your maintenance and repair models would be. All of those things seem to be lacking in this.

    “It seems to be, just get the aircraft off the assembly line and let the Air Force essentially operate on its own afterwards,” he continued. “That’s a disconnect about how you need to make sure that you’re managing the lifecycle cost of that aircraft.”

    In his statement, Schmidt said the war on readiness focuses on four key areas: solving the top issues that degrade the fighter’s availability, getting aircraft that have been down for long periods back to mission-capable status, getting maintenance at unit levels operating more efficiently, and streamlining the supply chain.

    A crucial step towards making the F-35 affordable and available in the long term will be standing up repair operations at depots, Schmidt said. Depot repair facilities in the U.S., Europe, and Pacific regions have already been stood up to repair the F-35′s air vehicle, propulsion and components, he said, and more are under way.

    One option the Pentagon is considering to improve F-35 sustainment is entering into a limited performance-based logistics contract with Lockheed Martin. But it remains an open question as to whether such a deal would lower costs or improve aircraft availability, as Lockheed believes it would.

    The Pentagon’s Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation is analyzing the proposed PBL deal, aiming to verify to lawmakers whether it would deliver the promised benefits.

    Wittman said lawmakers are dissatisfied with how much information CAPE typically shares with them, and are having conversations to ensure CAPE provides details on their findings on the suitability of a PBL contract.

    “CAPE needs to do a better job of being transparent with Congress about how they give us that information,” Wittman said. “We had a very heart-to-heart talk with the CAPE director about making sure that they do that. Our concern is, they hold a lot of that information to themselves and then they end up making decisions that either aren’t informed by what Congress wants, or sometimes even potentially in contradiction to what Congress has said is the direction that needs to be pursued.”

    Wittman said he has not gotten any preliminary findings from CAPE about what they have found, and he was not sure when their study will be finished and provided to lawmakers.

    When asked whether he is open to a PBL contract for the F-35, Wittman said he needs to see more information.

    “I’m still in the discovery mode of how things need to happen” with a potential PBL, Wittman said. “The things that came out of the GAO report introduce more questions than they answer. I think a lot of those questions need to be answered before we get into the scope of determining the course for PBL.”

    TR-3 upgrade delays

    The F-35 hearing Wittman is planning will also cover the repeatedly-delayed rollout of new F-35 upgrades known as Technology Refresh 3, which has halted the delivery of the latest fighters.

    The TR-3 improvements will include better displays, computer memory and processing power, and will allow a even wider range of upgrades known as Block 4 in the future. TR-3 was originally meant to roll out in April 2023. But in recent months that deadline has slipped at least twice, and now may come sometime between April and June 2024. The government attributes the TR-3 hangup to software integration issues.

    In the meantime, the government cannot conduct the needed acceptance flights on TR-3 fighters before taking possession of them, so dozens of constructed F-35s are sitting at Lockheed Martin’s Fort Worth, Texas facility.

    When asked how confident he is that the F-35 program can stick to the current goal for finishing TR-3 and resuming delivery of the latest series of jets by next June, Wittman said he is hopeful — but that “if you base it upon their historical performance, you might be a little suspect.” He plans to ask the JPO at the hearing later this year how much progress they have made on resolving the TR-3 problem and how likely it is they can meet the deadline of next June.

    Several issues have hampered the program’s ability to make TR-3 work, Wittman said. The program needs more testbeds, he said, which prompted lawmakers to add more funding to this year’s National Defense Authorization Act to allow the program to do more testing on its TR-3 software.

    But the TR-3 problem and lingering difficulty in getting its software to work shows that the Pentagon needs to rethink how it creates these systems and prioritize software creation first, Wittman said.

    “We have to look at software and data and the ability to do certain things in that realm first, and then design our hardware around that,” Wittman said. “Versus, build a great piece of hardware and then say, ‘We’ll figure out how the software makes it work later.’ We’re doing it backwards now.”

    Wittman said he plans to hold Lockheed Martin and the military accountable to ensure the F-35 is able to field the TR-3 capabilities it is meant to have. The fighter’s full capabilities must be realized so it can counter a potential threat from China in coming years, he said.

    “As they go through the testing, what happens is, the software gets to a certain point and then shuts down,” Wittman said. “I think that’s because of inadequacies in how the information is gathered in that process. … They have some holes they have to fill in order to get to the place where the software is operational.”

    Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.



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