The Bunker, delivered to our subscribers Wednesdays at 7 a.m., is a newsletter from the desk of National Security Analyst Mark Thompson. Sign up here to receive it first thing, or check back Wednesday afternoon for the online version.
This week in The Bunker: Pentagon snafus in three warfare domains — up in the sky, down on the ground, and out at sea — reveal how to not buy weapons; and more.
MALICE IN BLUNDERLAND
Disasters in the air, on the ground, and afloat
When it comes to Pentagon procurement, there are two basic problems: buying weapons that are too complicated, and buying them stupidly. This week we’re going to focus on that second challenge:
IN THE SKY…
If you want to know how well a warplane works, don’t talk to the pilots who fly them. Talk to the wrench-turners who fix them. The U.S. military is an amazingly complex machine that sometimes works. Then there is the F-35, the $438 billion program that is the most costly in the history of the world — and that’s only to buy the planes. The real money is the $1.3 trillion(PDF) you’re going to spend to keep them flying. Turns out Lockheed has got a chokehold on keeping its planes flying. But don’t blame the Pentagon’s biggest contractor — that’s the way the Defense Department originally wanted it, thinking it would be a smart way to cut costs. The resulting problems are highlighted in these excerpts from a new Government Accountability Office report, which might as well be a Kleenex box for taxpayers:
- The contractor and the original equipment manufacturer of specific components control the technical data necessary to understand, troubleshoot and repair many of the F-35’s components, which limits the effectiveness of the services’ maintainers.
- Maintainers…said that they had grown frustrated at not being able to make simple repairs to aircraft components that they have historically made on other fighter aircraft fleets.
- Part numbers reside in a database that is proprietary to the prime contractor. Maintainers do not have access...Maintainers…told us that they would not need contractors on the flight line if they simply had access to part numbers. However, since access to part numbers is an issue that can affect readiness of the aircraft, units and squadrons need contractors on a daily basis.
- According to maintainers…the amount of support equipment needed to maintain the F-35 is by far greater than other aircraft platforms in their respective fleets.
- Maintainers…told us that support equipment was breaking too frequently and, due to the proprietary nature of most of the equipment, they were not able to repair it themselves.
- Maintainers…told us that the maintenance-specific training for the F-35 was largely inadequate…Personnel…from one Field Training Detachment acknowledged that the training they provided was poor and inadequate.
- Maintainers…told us that maintenance manuals for other fighter aircraft, like the F-15 and F-16, contain systems descriptions with a theory of operation that explain in detail how a system operates. … However, F-35 maintainers…told us that they have access to so little technical information on the aircraft that they do not fully understand the aircraft or how to troubleshoot common problems.
- Components needing repair come with a Depot Component Maintenance Manual. However, these manuals are ambiguous and rarely are detailed enough for depot personnel to make the repair. As a result, depot personnel not only cannot fix the part, but they cannot learn and understand how to fix the part.
- Due to this growing list of parts awaiting repair, the F-35 Joint Program Office has purchased new parts instead of repairing the parts it already has in inventory. According to DOD officials, this is a practice that program officials do not believe is a sustainable solution.
The Pentagon, in a 2020 report, warned (PDF) that without more of its own maintenance know-how, the F-35 program “will enter ‘vendor lock’ with limited organic [in-house] sustainment capability.” Vendor lock, the GAO noted, “can grant the vendor some extent of monopoly power and can thus be much more profitable for the vendor.” In 2014, the GAO urged the Pentagon to develop a long-term plan to fly F-35s more cheaply by figuring out how to get the data it needs to do its own repairs. “Nearly a decade later,” the agency says(PDF), “DOD has not implemented this recommendation.”
This is why F-35s are ready to fly only about 50% of the time(PDF), well below their nearly 90% goal.
ON THE GROUND…
Military spare parts cost too much. They especially cost too much when the military has no idea how many they’ll need, leading to shortages that can sideline weapons, or surpluses that collect cobwebs in Pentagon warehouses. If you spent any time in a typical American school, like The Bunker did a long time ago, you may recall 60% being the passing grade. Kids who got 90% earned an “A,” 80% warranted a “B,” 70% got a “C,” and that 60% got a “D” — passing, but just barely. Anything below 60% was an “F,” as in Failure.
A September 21 Defense Department Inspector General’s report into the Army’s spare-parts needs concluded “the Army did not submit accurate spare parts forecasts to the DLA [Defense Logistics Agency],” the Pentagon’s central supply hub. So just how bad did the Army do? A fair-to-middling “C”? A terrible “D,” but at least a passing grade?
In your dreams. “The Army’s spare parts forecast accuracy rate averaged only 20 percent throughout FY 2021,” the IG found. “Army personnel stated that they did not track the causes for inaccurate forecasts.” Alas, the Army was hardly an outlier. “The DLA reported a 20 percent spare parts forecast accuracy rate for all Services,” the IG found. All told, in 2021 the services overstated their spare-parts needs by $969 million, and understated others by $503 million.
AND AT SEA…
The Navy wants to retire a warship that has sat idle in a shipyard for the past six years as the service has pumped at least $600 million into it, prepping for its return to sea. That’s the bad news. The better news is that the Navy commissioned the guided-missile cruiser in 1992, giving it a quarter-century afloat.
The worse news is that the Navy scrapped the USS Detroit (commissioned in 2016) and the USS Little Rock (commissioned 2017) on September 29. Both of the Lockheed-built warships were supposed to spend 25 years afloat, too. They were members of the troubled Littoral Combat Ship fleet, a $28 billion, 32-hull, misadventure, which works out to $875 million apiece. The worst news is that the Navy commissioned a brand-new LCS the very next day. The best news is that it isn’t Lockheed’s version.
WHAT WE’RE READING
Here’s what has caught The Bunker’s eye recently
→ Vendor Lock(PDF)
Lockheed won a $27 million boost to a contract “to provide diminishing manufacturing sources and engineering change proposals implementation and integration in support of updating configurations for F-35 production aircraft,” the Pentagon announced September 28.
→ Vendor Locked (PDF)
Lockheed landed a $19 million contract increase “for the stand-up of additional field level maintenance…in support of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program,” the Pentagon announced September 29.
Lockheed’s return-on-equity is 76%, six times the average of the aerospace and defense industry, Yahoo Finance reported October 1.
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