Engine shortages are holding down the readiness rates of the F-35, the world’s costliest weapons program, according to congressional auditors. Since the beginning of 2020, an increasing number of the fighter jets “have not been able to fly due to the lack of an operating engine,” the U.S. Government Accountability Office said in prepared testimony Thursday for a House Armed Services subcommittee. The problem is hitting hardest at the version used by the Air Force, which has the biggest fleet of F-35s.
The engines built by Raytheon Technologies Corp.’s Pratt & Whitney unit aren’t breaking down more often than planned, but fixing or replacing them when they do fail is taking longer than expected. That’s partly because breakdowns often involve the power module, which requires time-consuming work, and the GAO said the Pentagon hasn’t created enough depot maintenance capacity even as the number of F-35s has increased.
Expressing frustration with the F-35 engine, Representative John Garamendi, the subcommittee’s chairman, said he will call Pratt & Whitney representatives to testify. “Watch out, I’m coming after you,” the California Democrat said.
The GAO assessed that F-35 readiness rates for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps have improved since 2019 but still fall short of program goals. The aircraft could fly and perform all its assigned missions 39% of the time in 2020 before slipping to 38% in fiscal 2021. That’s far short of goals of 72% for the Air Force and 75% for the Navy and Marine models.
Defense Department officials said “they recognized that they have not had adequate depot capacity to repair the power module and do not have sufficient capacity to meet the demand of future unscheduled and scheduled engine repairs,” the GAO said.
The engine repair issue, and its ramifications for readiness, are a case study in why the Pentagon is having trouble reducing an estimated $1.3 trillion cost to operate and sustain the planes built by Lockheed Martin Corp. over a 66-year projected lifespan. That’s separate from troubles in the $398 billion program to develop and build the fighter. So far, 788 of the planes have been delivered to the U.S. military and customers abroad.
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