Lawmakers Cooling on F-35 Multi-Year Production Contracts

November 13, 2019 5:46 PM
Cpl. Kendal Parish and Sgt. Arben Kupa, both Airframe Mechanics from Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 501, reinstall a panel of an F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter after maintenance aboard the USS Wasp, May 24, 2015.

CAPITOL HILL – Lawmakers said Wednesday they’re unlikely to authorize the Pentagon to award a coveted multi-year contract to build F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters unless the program solves such problems as chronic shortages of spare parts that often wear out quicker than anticipated.

During the F-35 program’s planned 60-year lifecycle, acquisition costs are expected to be more than $406 billion and sustainment costs are estimated at more than $1 trillion, said Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) , chair of the House Armed Services readiness subcommittee. He was speaking during a joint hearing of his committee and the subcommittee on tactical air and land forces.

Two decades into F-35 development and production, prime contractors Lockheed Martin and engine maker Pratt and Whitney would like to sign multi-year production contracts.

However, the F-35 program is still plagued by what Garamendi called high operating costs, inadequate repair capacity, spare part shortages and poor replacement part reliabilities. Ongoing challenges running the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS), which was created to deliver parts to aircraft maintainers, are compounding the spare parts problems.

Pentagon officials have detailed operating problems with ALIS for years, including during a March 2018 House Armed Services subcommittee hearing on tactical air and land. In the time since ALIS hasn’t improved much, Garamendi said. Only about half of the military’s F-35 fleet was available to fly on any day in 2017 and 2018, he said.

“I don’t see a multi-year contract going forward until the fundamental questions that have been asked thus far, and several that have not yet been put on the table have been resolved,” Garamendi said. “Heretofore, the contractors have had the long end of the leather. and the government has been on the short end of the leather, that’s going to change.”

Timely delivery of spare F-35 parts to maintainers is at the heart of high maintenance costs. ALIS was described by Pentagon officials as hard to use, especially at remote locations and by Navy personnel on large deck amphibious warships.

The Pentagon is in the process of revamping the system’s underlying architecture, which is now pushing 20 years old, said Robert F. Behler, the Pentagon’s director of operational test and evaluation.

“ALIS is a key enabler for tactical and operational availability and sadly as presently constituted, ALIS is not delivering the capabilities the warfighter needs,” said Ellen Lord, undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment. “The department is progressing towards a future ALIS developed and sustained utilizing agile software development techniques designed to rapidly deliver flexible applications on a modern secure architecture.”

Lord also recently said the Pentagon is at least a year away from considering asking for approval to consider awarding F-35 multi-year contracts.

Lockheed Martin is spending roughly $50 million to improve ALIS and an additional $120 million to make other system architecture improvements, said Greg Ulmer, Lockheed Martin’s general manager of the F-35 program.

“The department is progressing towards a future ALIS developed and sustained utilizing agile software development techniques designed to rapidly deliver flexible applications on a modern secure architecture,” Lord said.

Ben Werner

Ben Werner

Ben Werner is a staff writer for USNI News. He has worked as a freelance writer in Busan, South Korea, and as a staff writer covering education and publicly traded companies for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., Savannah Morning News in Savannah, Ga., and Baltimore Business Journal. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland and a master’s degree from New York University.

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