The Defense Department's costliest weapons program is under fire again, according to a report conducted by the Government Accountability Office.
After evaluating the operational support of the ambitious F-35 fighter jet, the bipartisan congressional watchdog -- the GAO -- found that the aircraft faces much more than just financial challenges. The fifth-generation fighter jet, which is intended to serve the Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, is also dealing with supply shortages, delayed repair times and a lack of transparency when it comes to cost information. These three major problems, according to Cary Russell, the GAO's director of defense capabilities, are all affecting military readiness.
"The number of planes that weren't able to fly due to supply issues, or parts, was about 22 percent, which was over twice what they were hoping to do with what the program objective is," Russell told Circa.
And he further explained that sustainment issues aren't just affecting the jet's ability to fly, but are also taking a toll on what he called the jet's "mission capable rate" -- that is, the rate at which planes can conduct the missions they're assigned to do. The Marine Corps, for example, only saw a 15 percent fully mission capable rate.
"So there's significant challenges with respect to the readiness of the aircraft at making sure they can not only fly, but be able to conduct the missions they have to conduct."
So why do these challenges exist in the first place? Russell said that stems from poor planning upfront, as well as communication hiccups among the involved parties -- that being the Defense Department, individual military branches and suppliers.
"We found that there wasn’t good communication going on between all those parties to accurately depict the costs that are being paid for particularly compared to the estimates," he added.
As for the long repair times and part shortages, the report revealed that there was a six-year delay in establishing the facilities that would eventually repair F-35 parts. That oversight created a sort of trickle-down effect, leading to future repair times that were nearly twice as long as anticipated.
"There wasn't really adequate planning upfront to identify all the requirements for parts or for other sustainment activities and to make sure funding was applied to them, so that money would be available and be provided," Russell said. "So that resulted in supply shortages, ultimately, and we also saw that in the depot maintenance, too."
The idea of creating the ambitious F-35 fighter jet program extends back to the late 1980s, with manufacturing officially beginning in 2001. The Pentagon once described the F-35 Lightning II Program, or the Joint Strike Fighter Program, as the focal point of creating the next generation of affordable weapons aircraft, which would ultimately replace outdated aircraft in the Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force and also serve U.S. allies.
Though the latest jet promises a lot -- most notably, an advanced technological system that will allow it to go virtually undetected by radar sensors -- the weapons program has been vulnerable to widespread criticism by various government officials, including defense hawk Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and even President Trump himself. They say the jet's continuous delayed production and enormous costs are a waste of taxpayer dollars.
The F-35 program and cost is out of control. Billions of dollars can and will be saved on military (and other) purchases after January 20th.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 12, 2016
Despite its challenges, Russell said it's not to late to right the program's previous wrongs, but he urged the Defense Department to act quickly since there are already about 250 F-35s operating in the fleet, with hopes of doubling that number in the next four years.
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