Again, it’s a problem that could be compounded by the move to full-rate production. As Lockheed is responsible for building a much larger number of jets and prioritizes delivering those new aircraft to its customers, the F-35s already in operation will face even stiffer competition for spare parts.
Slow and complicated maintenance is not a minor problem. As is generally the case for most weapons systems, maintenance is expected to make up more than 70 percent of the F-35 program’s total cost over the projected lifetime of the program. And managing these costs only grows more critical as more F-35s come online.
An important measure of the cost, sustainability and value of the new jet is its total operating cost. In 2018, flying an F-35A cost about $44,000 per hour on average — about double the cost of operating the Navy’s Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. Some of the military’s top officials, including Gen. Dave Goldfein, the Air Force’s chief of staff, and former Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, have complained that it is too expensive to fly and maintain the F-35, raising the possibility that the service may have to buy fewer of them if costs don’t shrink.
In 2018, Goldfein called the F-35 “a computer that happens to fly” — a popular characterization among F-35 advocates, highlighting the plane’s ability to collect and analyze data in order to knock out enemy planes and missiles. But as China develops its own stealth fighters and pumps government money into research on supercomputing and artificial intelligence, the Pentagon is wondering how it can continue to give F-35 technology a competitive edge against America’s adversaries.
One solution favored by Winter during his recent tenure was so-called agile software development. His vision for “continuous capability development and delivery” resembles DevOps, a popular method in the private sector for quickly testing and evaluating features for new products. Coders generate software upgrades or patches in a matter of days or weeks, pass them along to users to test and then push out the update more widely if the changes are successful. That speed would be a major improvement on the months, or in some cases a year or more, that it can take defense contractors to deliver a software patch right now.
Winter also made it a priority to push for drastic streamlining in the process for testing new software in the F-35. Under the existing procedures, the Pentagon can require test flights for more than 300 different factors or functions when a new software load is installed. Winter worked to cut that down to a single validation flight, to test just the software and the systems it affects, rather than retesting the performance of the whole aircraft. A trial program staffed with a team of Air Force and Lockheed coders proved that the method works and doesn’t put pilots at risk, and Winter’s rapid software development strategy is now being implemented. But moving to an agile software approach for the F-35 presents a huge challenge for the sluggish and bureaucratic military acquisition system, and there’s no blueprint for how to integrate it alongside the traditional processes for developing and testing hardware.
As with all stories involving the tangled web that is the Pentagon bureaucracy, it’s tempting to try to look for a hidden root behind all the problems — greedy corporate executives, corrupt generals, the military-industrial complex itself. But those closest to the F-35 program, the engineers, software developers and midlevel managers, express the same things over and over. Frustration that the tremendous scope of the program keeps them from being able to do more to fix it; and a wounded sense of pride for the impressive technological advances they have achieved, but that often seem lost in the intractable tangle of complications and setbacks.