Capitol Hill Isn’t At All Happy with the F-35: Engines ‘Don’t Work’ and Purchases Could Be Cut

Following the latest of multiple dismal reports by the Government Accountability Office on the performance on the F-35 fifth generation fighter program, a nearly two hour hearing on Capitol Hill saw the head of the F-35 Joint Program Office Lieutenant General Eric Fick answer questions as congressmen vowed to “raise holy hell” until persistent issues were resolved. The Accountability Office report highlighted that the fighter continued to suffer from low mission capable rates, missed reliability targets, and most notably had seen maintenance costs double. The F-35 was developed as a lighter, cheaper and lower maintenance counterpart to the F-22 Raptor, which saw orders to terminate production given within four years of its entry into service largely due to its own performance issues as well as operational costs well above targets which made fielding even a medium sized fleet unaffordable. While the F-35 is considerably cheaper and easier to maintain than the F-22 and has much higher availability rates, compared to all other American fighters it has nevertheless rated poorly which, considering that the Pentagon plans to field it in over well 15 times the numbers of the F-22 fleet, has raised serious questions regarding whether such a fleet size is viable. The F-35 uses a single engine where the F-22 used twin engines, and is considerably lighter and smaller, although issues with its F135 engine have consistently been a leading driver of low mission capable rates. 

House Armed Service Subcommittee on Readiness Chairman Congressman John Garamendi stated at the hearing regarding issues with the F-35: “I will not tolerate it any longer. I’ve been watching the F-35 for a decade and it has not been solved. It has not gotten the attention necessary to sustain this 1.7 trillion dollar platform. It has not occurred, plain and simple. We’re going to go off and buy new bright shiny airplanes and they’re going to be flying probably well for a few months and then they’re going to wind up with a problem.” He slammed the suggestion that the F-35 switch to reliance on a different engine from another producer, possibly General Electric where the F135 was produced by Pratt & Whitney, saying it would likely result in two different engines that both “don’t work.” “Maybe the engine is not working, which is a Pratt & Whitney problem,” he said. “They’re going to be before this committee soon. If they’re in the audience and if they’re listening, watch out. I’m coming at you in a very angry mood. You give us an engine and it doesn’t work, well it worked for a little while until it gets some dust around and then it doesn’t work. What the hell? What’s going on here?”

Garamendi highlighted that until issues with the F-35 were resolved, further purchases of the fighter could cease entirely. “we’re not going to buy more planes until we figure out how to maintain them. It is a fool’s errand. It is a waste of money by the taxpayers. It’s a bright shiny machine until it doesn’t work,” he stressed. “For the contractors out there what in the hell are you doing? Why can’t you give us a piece of equipment that actually works? You should never have a contract,” he added. General Fick notably concurred with the chairman’s statements, lamenting ongoing issues with logistics and maintenance.  

Representative Jackie Speier highlighted that the F-35’s issues were far from isolated, and were reminiscent of problems with other ambitious weapons programs.  “This reminds me, on a much larger scale, of the debacle of the LCS, [Littoral Combat Ship]. We are incapable of turning off the spigot when something doesn’t work. So, this is a $400 billion program to build them and a $1 trillion program to sustain them over the lifecycle. We’re asking the American people to pay for the F-35, only 55 percent of which are mission capable when the standard is 75 percent. Only about 30 to 35 percent of the F-35s are fully mission capable compared to a target of 60 percent and maintenance is taking twice as long as originally intended.” The LCS notably began retirement several decades ahead of schedule, and despite being designed as a low cost short ranged platform it ended up with an operational cost exceeding that of many heavy destroyers and with serious issues across almost all areas of performance. 

The F-35 is the only fifth generation fighter both in production and fielded at squadron level strength anywhere in the world other than the Chinese J-20, which is a heavyweight twin engine platform of comparable size to the F-22 but with similarly advanced avionics to the F-35. The lack of domestic competitors from the same generation, and the tremendous costs sunk into research and development and setting up production lines, has led analysts to widely conclude that the United States government and the Pentagon have little choice but to proceed with the program despite its shortcomings. Whether issues with the fighter’s performance and with maintenance and operational readiness can be resolved, and if so whether this can be done before 2030 when the first sixth generation fighters are expected to begin entering service, remains in serious question. 

The F-35 program has faced harsh criticism for over a decade, with the last holder of the post of Secretary of Defence under the Donald Trump administration, Christopher C. Miller, referring to the program as a “monster” the military had created and to the fighter itself as “a piece of…”  Former Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain previously referred to the F-35 as “a textbook example’ of the country’s ‘broken defence acquisition system,” stating in a briefing to the Senate: “the F-35 program’s record of performance has been both a scandal and a tragedy with respect to cost, schedule and performance.” On the basis of its wide ranging performance issues, the F-35 has been criticised by sources ranging from military think tanks such as the NSN and the RAND Corporation, to organisations such as the Project on Government Oversight and individuals such as the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester Michael Gilmore and Marine Captain Dan Grazier. The Pentagon  repeatedly highlighted that the F-35 suffered from poor reliability and that the aircraft’s high operational costs could make it unaffordable in the numbers initially intended to be purchased, with technical challenges repeatedly delaying the Pentagon’s granting of approval for full scale production which has yet to be granted. The U.S. Air Force is reportedly seriously considering deep cuts to planned orders for the aircraft, and instead acquiring cheaper and simpler jets possibly based on the F-16 design – an aircraft which first flew in 1974. Orders in 2022 notably saw a 35 percent cut over the previous year.