F-35 Jet's Challenges in Pacific Theater Classified by Pentagon

(Bloomberg) -- The Pentagon classified an assessment of the major challenges the Marine Corps encountered in deploying the U.S.’s first F-35 jets to the Pacific, according to a new Government Accountability Office report.

An unclassified version of the study released on Wednesday suggests the problems with the Lockheed Martin Corp. fighter -- which would bolster U.S. capabilities in case of a conflict with North Korea -- could be significant, touching on both critical software and supply chain issues.

“While the Marine Corps recognizes the advanced warfighting capabilities the F-35 will bring to the Pacific, it is facing challenges operating in the area,” according to the unclassified version. “In particular, it is uncertain how long the F-35 can effectively operate” if its software-intensive maintenance diagnostic system -- critical for keeping the jets flying -- “becomes disconnected from the aircraft,” according to the report.

Moreover, lessons learned from the Marine Corps deployment aren’t being shared in a systematic way with the Navy or Air Force, according to the unclassified report, raising questions about interservice coordination on the world’s costliest weapons program.

Read how Lockheed was told to cut the F-35’s $1.1 trillion support bill

“While the Marine Corps records F-35 operational lessons learned on its own, service-specific website, these lessons are not currently shared or made available across the F-35 program,” according to the report. “Instead, Marine Corps officials stated that they currently rely on personal relationships to share lessons learned with other services, through methods such as phone calls to colleagues in the Air Force or the Navy.”

That’s not best practice, the GAO warned.

“The services are at risk of not having access to key information that could affect their movements, exercises, operations, and sustainment of the aircraft in the Pacific and other areas where they operate,” the report said. “Now is the time for DOD to make sure that lessons learned are communicated effectively across all services.”

Pentagon Response

The Pentagon’s F-35 office said it wasn’t surprised by the findings and is working to incorporate the recommendations made, spokesman Joe DellaVedova said in an email. The program is already undertaking additional evaluations of the software maintenance system as well as efforts “to improve the sharing of F-35 operational lessons,” he said.

The GAO study examined the high-profile deployment in January 2017 of 16 jets from Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 to Iwakuni, Japan. The deployment marked the first time an operational F-35 squadron was stationed overseas.

The Marines fly the short-takeoff and vertical-landing B-model of the F-35, the most complex version of the jet in the $406 billion acquisition program. The Corps plans to buy 353 of the jets to replace the AV-8B Harrier and multiple versions of F/A-18 strike fighters.

The unclassified version of the report left details on supply chain problems out of the unclassified version of the study.

“The Marine Corps has also encountered several challenges with the F-35’s supply chain since beginning flight operations,” the public version said, but “further details are provided in our classified report.”

DellaVedova said the Pentagon has established a global support strategy and continuously assesses the supply chain-related challenges operating and sustaining F-35 in the Pacific.”

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