The Navy's "Operational" F-35C Is Fully Mission Capable Less Than Five Percent Of The Time

A stunning deficiency in readiness rates for Navy and Marine F-35s calls into question whether the stealth jets can fight a prolonged conflict.

33 MXS embarks with Navy F-35C fleet
33rd Fighter Wing/Public Affairs—Public Domain

Newly available data shows that less than 15 percent of the U.S. Marine Corps F-35B Joint Strike Fighters and around just two percent of the U.S. Navy's F-35Cs were fully mission capable at any given time, on average, for more than two years at least. The details come as the readiness rates for aviation fleets across both services have plummeted in recent years. It is also a clear indication that they will have a difficult time meeting the target of 80 percent mission capability rates for both aircraft by the end of the 2019 Fiscal Year that former Secretary of Defense James Mattis had mandated last year.

The Project on Government Oversight (POGO) first revealed the chronically abysmal mission capable rates for the F-35B and C models on Mar. 19, 2019, after obtaining official Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) data spanning from October 2016 to December 2018. The Navy only declared initial operational capability (IOC) with the F-35C, meant to reflect the service's establishment of its first operational unit, at the end of February 2019. However, the Marines had announced they had reached IOC with the F-35B back in July 2015. F-35Bs from the Marine Fighter Attack Squadron Two One One (VMFA-211) also recently wrapped up a deployment to the Horn of Africa and the Middle East that involved the first ever combat missions by American F-35s, with the planes eventually striking targets in Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria.

"In response to POGO’s questions about the Navy’s fully mission capable rates, the Joint Program Office highlighted the entire F-35 fleet’s higher “mission capable” rate," Dan Grazier, the Jack Shanahan Military Fellow at the Center for Defense Information at POGO, wrote in a detailed status update on the F-35 program as a whole on the organization's website. This is "a less rigorous – and less useful – measure showing how often the aircraft can perform at least one of its assigned tasks. The office also identified the lack of spare parts as the biggest factor impacting availability."

The data that POGO obtained on full mission capable F-35Bs and Cs, also commonly known as "Code One" aircraft, is truly striking. The average number of fully mission capable Marine F-35Bs, aircraft with all of their systems functional and capable of meeting all mission requirements, never rose above 25 percent in more than two years. In October 2017, it dipped to 12.9 percent and by the end of 2018 it was hovering somewhere around 12 to 13 percent. 

NAVAIR via POGO
NAVAIR via POGO

As of June 2018, Lockheed Martin had delivered 75 F-35Bs to all customers, the vast majority of which went to the Marines. Even if the service had received all of these planes, it would have had less than dozen jets fully mission ready in December 2018, more than three years after officially declaring the type operational.

The figures for the F-35C are far worse. For more than two years, the Navy has been unable to even get the full mission capable rate about 20 percent. As of December 2017, not a single one of the service's jets met that standard at any given time. A year later, the rate was still in the single digits. With just 28 C models in total, this would have meant just around one of the stealthy aircraft was ever fully ready to go, on average, for at least 12 months.

There's absolutely no reason to doubt the accuracy or authenticity of this data. In 2017, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report that noted that the F-35B full mission capable rate was under 15 percent.

GAO

Though NAVAIR might prefer to refer to the mission capable rate, which is really a partially mission capable rate, it's not actually much better, either. The F-35B mission capable rate has generally been between 40 and 50 percent. With the exception of an unexplained spike to 70 percent mission capable in August 2018, the F-35C fleet's readiness has been steadily trending downward to below 50 percent.

It's certainly fair for NAVAIR to blame a part of this dismal performance on parts shortages and other chronic sustainment issues. The Pentagon's central F-35 Joint Program Office, together with the plane's manufacturer Lockheed Martin, have been struggling to get these problems, and their associated costs, under control for years now. The unit costs for all three F-35 variants have been coming down, but at the same time, operation and maintenance costs have steadily grown

On top of that, the F-35's cloud-based computer brain, known as the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS), pronounced like the name "Alice," has failed to perform. In principle, this system is supposed to streamline mission planning and maintenance procedures, help diagnose and predict faults, and serve a host of other critical mission functions that you can read about in more detail here. In practice, ALIS has contributed to dramatic declines in mission capable rates for various reasons, including by declaring parts broken when they're not and showing aircraft as not mission capable when they actually are.

USAF

A US Air Force maintainer uses a laptop to communicate with ALIS on an F-35A Joint Strike Fighter.

"The timeline for correcting ALIS deficiencies is typically excessive, causing workarounds to remain in place for extended periods," the Pentagon's Office of the Direction of Operational Test and Evaluation, or DOT&E, noted in its annual report on the F-35 program's performance for the 2018 Fiscal Year. "For example, ALIS incorrectly reports the status of aircraft as NMC [Not Mission Capable] in the Squadron Health Management application based on HRCs [Health Reporting Codes] (faults). Meanwhile, a separate application – Customer Maintenance Management System, which relies on the Mission Essential Function List (MEFL) – reports the same aircraft as mission capable."

It's also important to note that the U.S. military exacerbated these issues itself through a concept known as concurrency, which involved increasing F-35 production and purchasing dozens of jets with plans to make upgrades and updates on a rolling basis as time went on. Originally billed as a cost-saving measure, this has left the Navy and Marines with dozens of jets in various configurations that do not all have the same capabilities and routinely have to go back to the depot for reworks. Aircraft with older mission systems software, in particular, have become increasingly difficult to maintain and add to the errors in ALIS. It may never be cost-effective to bring these F-35s up to the latest standards.

GAO

A basic overview of the different mission system software blocks as of February 2018. There have been numerous revisions in each case, as well, meaning that there have actually been dozens of different configurations.

These issues are hardly limited to the F-35B and C models, either. The U.S. Air Force has been experiencing them as well with regards to its F-35A fleet, which had a full mission capable rate of just more than 32 percent as of mid-2017, according to the GAO. This service has also been choosing to use the less comprehensive mission capable rate instead in much of its public reporting, which inflated the readiness figure for that year to closer to 55 percent. 

All three services had been referring to a separate Mission Effectiveness figure, as well, which indicates the percentage of time an F-35 could perform its assigned mission. There's no information on whether or not the actual readiness rates, whether full mission capable or partial mission capable, impacted the decision to assign a mission in the first place, though.

GAO

A chart showing various readiness data on Air Force F-35As and Marine Corps F-35Bs during 2016 and 2017.

Earlier in March 2019, Defense News revealed that ALIS has been so unreliable that the U.S. Air Force's instructor and student pilots at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida and Luke Air Force Base in Arizona quietly stopped using it altogether in early 2018. The month before, that service had announced it had begun an initiative dubbed Mad Hatter, to completely revamp the system.

“The goal [of Mad Hatter] is not simply to fix ALIS within the constraints that define it," Will Roper, the Air Force’s top acquisition official, told Defense News, in February 2018. "It is to make the operator – the maintainer – more efficient, to make their user experience more pleasant.”

USN

F-35Cs in the hangar bay of a supercarrier. 

Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson was blunt about the system in remarks at the Air Force Association's Air Warfare Symposium that same month. "I can guarantee that no Air Force maintainer will ever name their daughter Alice," she quipped.

But it's hard to see sustainment costs, parts shortages, ALIS, and even concurrency, being the only factors to blame. For the F-35C fleet especially, a relatively small force tasked with testing and training duties for the entire reporting period that the data POGO obtained covers, it seems difficult to understand how readiness could slip so low. There would have been a particular incentive to ensure the fleet was performing as well as possible in the lead up to the IOC declaration. 

USNC

F-35B in vertical landing mode. 

Whatever the exact causes, and while the F-35B and C mission capable rates are especially awful, they also reflect broader and more serious trends across Navy and Marine aviation communities. At the beginning of 2018, the Navy's overall full mission capable rate goal across the entire Naval Aviation Enterprise (NAE), which includes Marine aircraft and helicopters, was just 56 percent. Even then, at that time, the actual "enterprise-wide" rate was closer to 30 percent. The desired overall mission capable rate, which the services were also failing to meet, was 73 percent. 

Both figures had been largely trending downward every year since 1998. A change in how NAVAIR determined support postures briefly led to the average full mission capable rate for any Navy or Marine aircraft or helicopter dropping to just 15 percent. In 2010, the Navy and Marines began also using a Ready Basic Aircraft category, or RBA, something one official presentation even refers to as a "lowered bar," to refer to planes and helicopters that were available in any way, to further help present a more positive picture of their readiness.

USN

A chart showing mission capable and full mission capable rates across the entire Naval Aviation Enterprise (NAE) from August 1998 to August 2017.

A host of factors since the end of the Cold War are responsible for this overall decline. The Budget Control Act of 2011, which triggered automatic defense spending cuts in 2013, known as sequestration, only exacerbated the issue, forcing the services to make hard choices about what to scale back to meet the budgetary constraints. Poor decision making throughout the U.S. military compounded the problems as various services, with new procurement repeatedly taking precedence over training, maintenance, logistics, and overall readiness. 

In recent years, the impacts have risen to crisis levels amid a spate of often fatal accidents. It's also what prompted then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis to demand in a memo he circulated in September 2018 that the Navy, Marines, and Air Force all ensure that certain "critical aviation platforms," including all three models of the F-35, had mission capable rates at or above 80 percent by the end of the 2019 Fiscal Year.

It will take a nearly miracle-like improvement in performance for any of the F-35 fleets to meet this target by the Sept. 30, 2019 deadline, even using the less robust mission capable rate rather than the full mission capable rate. Ongoing sustainment problems and troubles with ALIS raise the possibility that it might actually get worse.

Lockheed Martin

From left to right, the F-35C, F-35B, and F-35A.

None of this addresses the overall costs involved with flying and maintaining the F-35, either. The operational and logistical demands of the stealthy Joint Strike Fighters are significant greater than previous fourth generation aircraft in general, which has long raised concerns about the potential difficulties in operating large fleets of the stealth fighters in the future. These fears have been particularly pronounced with regards to the Marine Corps, which is transitioning to a force where the F-35B will eventually be its only jet combat aircraft. The data POGO obtained, coupled with the information from other available sources, would seem to bear this out, at least for the foreseeable future.

It also only lends more weight to plans the Navy, and now the Air Force, are pursuing to operate a mix of fifth and advanced fourth generation aircraft going forward. To this end, the Navy has been continuing to purchase increasingly more capable sub-variants of the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet to serve alongside its F-35Cs. At the suggestion of Pentagon cost analysts, the Air Force is now looking to buy improved F-15X Advanced Eagle jets to supplement its F-35As.

USN

F-35Cs over NAS Lemoore in California. 

It also puts into question the viability of the F-35 fleets in their present state to adequately perform during a protracted conflict. If the Marines need seven jets just to ensure that one is full mission capable, it only drives up the total number of aircraft the service would need to deploy and sustain to generate the required sorties during any sort of high-end, high-tempo operation. On top of that, the F-35 is all about "fusing" its deeply integrated systems capabilities together for a synergistic effect. When the aircraft only has some of its systems operational at any given time, the advantage of this deep integration degrades steeply. 

If nothing else, the dismal full mission capable rates for the F-35B and C call into question the actual combat utility of either aircraft broadly, despite the former's recent operational outing and the latter's recent IOC milestone. The new data only adds to the long-standing questions about the exact capabilities of all three Joint Strike Fighter variants as they stand now.

But it hardly matters what their capabilities are on paper if just a tiny fraction of them are actually fully mission capable at any given time.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com