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US military can’t fix own $1.7 trillion jet, gov’t watchdog says

An F-35A Lightning II from the 388th Fighter Wing flies over Hill Air Force Base, June 25, 2022. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Erica Webster)
September 27, 2023

The iconic F-35 fighter jet is grounded almost as much as it is mission-ready, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which indicated that the U.S. military is currently unable to fix its own $1.7 trillion fighter jets.

A new government watchdog report has drawn attention to the mounting challenges the Defense Department faces in managing the aircraft’s maintenance and the spiraling costs associated with it.

The GAO’s report, titled “DOD and the Military Services Need to Reassess the Future Sustainment Strategy,” paints a bleak picture of an aircraft that, as of March 2023, is mission-capable only 55% of the time. This figure is alarmingly below the program’s targets.

“The F-35 fleet mission capable rate was about 55 percent in March 2023, far below program goals,” the GAO stated, attributing part of the challenge to the delay in setting up depot maintenance activities. Consequently, over 10,000 components await repairs.

According to the GAO, the handling and maintenance of the F-35s have largely been outsourced to defense contractors rather than being managed by military engineers. The external dependence on the F-35 program is part of the cause of the soaring maintenance costs.

The GAO highlighted that the program’s life cycle is anticipated to cost an overwhelming $1.7 trillion, of which roughly $1.3 trillion is expected for sustaining the aircraft alone.

Efforts to reduce the jet’s downtime, currently averaging 141 days for a repair – down from 172 days in 2017 – have shown some progress, but the military’s ideal goal of 60 days remains elusive.

READ MORE: Missing F-35 jet found after asking public for help, say officials

“Program officials anticipated having greater repair material starting in the second half of 2023, helping to steadily improve repair times,” the GAO said. “These officials also told us that they were still years away from achieving the program’s goal.”

The GAO reported that the backlog of parts requiring maintenance repairs has swelled from 4,300 in 2019 to 10,000 in 2023. The escalating maintenance problem has forced the Department of Defense into a costly choice of having to purchase new parts instead of waiting for the older ones to be repaired.

The GAO’s findings also indicate that the Pentagon has fallen 12 years behind in the operation of its repair facilities. Of the 68 critical components the military aims to repair in-house, it currently manages only 44, relying on contractors for the rest.

Such delays are creating a ripple effect of prolonged repair times, a mounting backlog of parts and decreased aircraft readiness.

According to, recent mishaps, like the F-35 that went missing over South Carolina, further highlight the vulnerabilities of the high-profile aircraft.

This news article was partially created with the assistance of artificial intelligence and edited and fact-checked by a human editor.