Pentagon Will Raid F-35 Spare Parts Budget To Help Pay For Kicking Turkey Out Of The Program
The Pentagon says it needs hundreds of millions in extra funds to find new suppliers for critical parts for the Joint Strike Fighters.
The Pentagon says it needs more than $200 million to help find new suppliers for various components for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter due to the "potential application of sanctions" on unspecified "foreign countries," almost certainly a reference to Turkey. Last month, senior U.S. military officials outlined a roadmap for how they planned to kick Turkey out of the F-35 program, including ending the roles that numerous Turkish companies play in the construction of the stealthy jets, over the Turkish government's purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system. But the plan is to shift those funds from an account set aside to buy spare parts for these aircraft, which has been a major contributor to the abysmal readiness rates for all three F-35 variants across the U.S. Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy.
Elaine McCusker, the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller), signed off on the request to move $206 million within certain parts of the U.S. Navy budget for the 2019 Fiscal Year on May 31, 2019. However, the Comptroller's office only recently posted the document online. By law, the Pentagon has to submit requests to reallocate funding from one part of the budget to another to Congress for approval.
"Funds are required in support of supply chain alternate sourcing for the F-35 program. The Department is already taking steps to establish alternate sources of F-35 components to protect from potential disruption of current sources," the request explained. "These efforts target components manufactured in foreign countries where the U.S. is considering the potential application of sanctions, which would disrupt the F-35 supply chain."
This aligns with comments the Pentagon made in June 2019 about what would happen if Turkey were to get ejected from the F-35 program over the S-400 deal. Turkish officials say the first deliveries of these Russian air defense systems could begin within days. On June 7, 2019, Ellen Lord, the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisitions and Sustainment, said that there would be a “disciplined and graceful wind down” of all existing Turkish contracts related to the F-35 program by early 2020.
The United States and other F-35 operators have concerns that the Turkish military operating both Joint Strike Fighters and S-400s could expose sensitive details about the jet's radar signature and other characteristics. Turkey's purchase of the Russian air defense system could trigger other U.S. sanctions, as well.
The reprogramming request interestingly only pumps additional funds into the accounts for the short takeoff and vertical landing-capable F-35B and the carrier-based F-35C. The Navy's F-35B procurement account would receive an additional $108 million under this plan and the F-35C would get an infusion of $98 million.
"This action is necessary to protect F-35 production schedules and supports Phases I and II of the Department of the Navy's supply chain alternate sourcing requirement strategy," the request said. "Phase I focuses on developing new sources for high-medium risk single source parts, while Phase II will focus on developing new sources for medium-low risk single source parts. The remaining efforts in Phase III ($155 million) will be further refined and funded during the execution year."
It's unclear what steps the U.S. Air Force might be taking in relation to the F-35A. Turkish firms have been the only suppliers for some 400 different parts for the F-35, Undersecretary of Defense Lord had added last month. Notably, electronics firm AYESAŞ builds the panoramic cockpit displays that go into all three variants of the F-35.
Also curious is what account the Pentagon is shifting these funds from. All $206 million is coming out of funding set aside for F-35 spare parts.
"Funds are available due to contract savings achieved during prior year F-35 spares contract negotiations," the request said. "A portion of the FY 2019 F-35 spares requirement will now be funded using these prior year contract savings, resulting in the FY 2019 funds are available for realignment in support of higher priority requirements within the F-35 program."
This is particularly notable given the difficulties the Navy, as well as the Air Force and the Marine Corps, have had in improving dismal availability rates across their respective F-35 fleets. By the end of 2018, Marine Corps F-35Bs were fully mission capable, on average, less than 15 percent of the time, while the rate for Navy F-35Cs was under five percent.
The exact reasons for these difficulties are multi-faceted and complex, something The War Zone has explored in detail previously, but the Pentagon's central F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO) has previously identified shortages of spare parts, as well as existing stockpiles including parts that are no longer usable, as the "biggest factor impacting availability."
Finding new suppliers to fill the gaps left by the expulsion of Turkey from the F-35 program is certainly an important priority. However, the purchase of spare parts seems equally important. Between May and November 2018, F-35s across the Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy were unable to fly at all 30 percent of the time, on average, because of a lack of spares and difficulties in getting parts that were available where they needed to go, according to a report the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released in April 2019.
All told, with regards to the saga that is the F-35 program, an additional $206 million to offset the loss of Turkish suppliers is a relatively minor expenditure and would fit with the Pentagon's previous public assessments that there would be minimal disruptions to the Joint Strike Fighter program if this occurred. At the same time, the Navy is already expecting to need an additional $155 million on top of that to handle additional offsets in relation to the F-35B and C and it's unclear how much the Air Force might need with regards to the F-35A.
Furthermore, while the Pentagon has clearly deemed these supply chain concerns to be more pressing than the acquisition of additional spare parts, it remains to be seen how that might impact F-35 readiness in the near-term. How the United States and other Joint Strike Fighter operators will manage the costs and complexities of operating, maintaining, and sustaining the stealthy jets remains a major question mark for the program as a whole going forward.
What is clear is that the Pentagon is moving steadily along with its plans to completely cut the Turkish government, and that country's defense contractors, out of the F-35 program for good.
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