The US military is set to spend at least $1.7 trillion on nearly 2,500 F-35 fighter jets that have “costly maintenance issues” — and have a coin flip chance of completing their missions, according to a new government report released Thursday.
The F-35 air fleet was included as a line item in last year’s annual defense budget, but the Pentagon remains “behind schedule” in maintaining the fighter jets, the Government Accountability Office found.
The GAO report also showed the $100-million-apiece F-35s are capable of performing missions just 55% of the time, and more than 10,000 of the aircraft have been grounded for repairs. Just 450 are currently fielded.
It also cited delays in “setting up military service depots — facilities to complete the most complex repairs,” “inadequate equipment to keep aircraft operational” and “maintenance and supply delays affecting aircraft readiness.”
The findings raise concerns about one of the US military’s most expensive weapons systems just days after a pilot ejected from an F-35 over South Carolina due to what officials described as a “malfunction.”
The jet was lost in bad weather and the unidentified pilot apparently bailed from the cockpit before turning on the aircraft’s tracking system — causing it to be lost for days before debris was found in a wooded area in Williamsburg County, roughly 60 miles from the North Charleston residential neighborhood into which the pilot parachuted.
“Over the life of the F-35 program, sustainment has only recently been prioritized and difficult decisions regarding sustainment continue to be Delayed,” the report states.
“DOD and the military services have the opportunity to take a different path and chart an affordable path forward. The preparedness of our military depends upon it.”
The F-35 has the unique ability to land vertically, allowing pilots the opportunity to touch down nearly anywhere – including on Navy ships at sea. It’s a feature that defense experts say could play a valuable role should conflict with China break out in the Western Pacific.
Of the available funds, $1.3 trillion have been allocated for “operating and sustaining the aircraft.”
The government watchdog toured two depots and all 15 installations for the F-35s before issuing Thursday’s report.
The GAO recommended that the Pentagon retain management of all F-35s by October 2027 — and leave less control of the fleet up to government contractors.
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