Uh Oh—The Military’s F-35 Stealth Jet Body Shop Is in Trouble
Red tape, overworked crews slow upgrades
Over the next several months, the first batch of 10 Marine Corps F-35B stealth fighters will begin arriving at a repair depot near the North Carolina coast. But the two F-35s already undergoing repairs at the depot are way behind schedule.
That doesn’t bode well for the pricey jet’s scheduled introduction into front-line service in 2015.
Of the two F-35s currently being serviced at the base, known as FRC East, one is a test aircraft and the other belongs to the British military. Both are undergoing a series of upgrades to “replace or reinforce life-limited parts, problems with which were discovered in flight testing,” according to the newsletter Inside Defense, which reported the delays.
But while the upgrades were supposed to take 120 days, the work is now more than 30 days behind schedule. The depot’s civilian gearheads are also complaining about outdated logistics software and meddling micromanagers from the Pentagon’s Joint Program Office, which oversees the jet’s development.
This is a problem. The depot, known as FRC East, is supposed to handle an influx of 10 Marine F-35Bs arriving this year—and scheduled to be finished by mid-2015. The work includes restoring the jets’ radar-absorbent coating. Without that, you don’t have much of a stealth fighter.
“The definition of initial operational capability are 10 airplanes, 10 crews, full maintenance suite that’s all trained, the maintainers are all trained up on it,” Gen. James Amos, the Marine commandant, said during a talk at the Brookings Institution one year ago. “Right now we’re planning on that happening towards the latter part of 2015.”
But software being used to handle the job’s logistics—known as ALIS—is too slow. It takes “several minutes to perform basic functions,” the newsletter reported.
At the same time, Pentagon reps are complaining to the depot managers when they don’t work fast enough. To top it off, the program office requires the technicians to seek approval for even minor tasks, which further slows things down.
“We’re dealing with a $130-, $150-, $180-million aircraft and [the JPO is] concerned over two or three man-hours worth of labor,” Don Jeter, the depot’s F-35 task manager, told Inside Defense. “To me, we’re focusing on the wrong things a lot of the time.”
The Pentagon assigned two depots for F-35 repair work—an Air Force depot in Utah, and FRC-East. The latter handles the Marine Corps F-35Bs, while the Air Force and Navy F-35As and Cs go to Utah.
The military repairs and maintains aircraft all over the world, but the largely U.S.-based depots are where the military handles the toughest and heaviest jobs. The depots are also staffed by mostly civilian technicians.
But part of the problem is that the F-35 is a complicated aircraft—maybe a little bit too complicated. There’s far more technical data required for maintenance work than older jets like the F-16—and many of the technicians are working with a stealth jet for the first time.
The depot also services other aircraft, include V-22 tiltrotors, helicopters and Harrier jets. The newsletter noted that the crews working on these aircraft and the F-35s are “all are working at close to maximum capacity.” Technicians have also been pulled from other projects to drill down on the F-35s.
That means the Marines’ might not just blow their own deadline, they potentially risk delaying much-needed repairs for other aircraft as well.