MARINE CORPS AIR STATION BEAUFORT, S.C. — The Marine Corps’ premier F-35 training squadron is churning out new pilots, but low availability of spare parts and the jet’s logistics system continue to cause a headache for the maintainers at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort.
MCAS Beaufort in South Carolina is home to Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron (VMFAT) 501, the service’s hub for pilots learning to fly the short takeoff, vertical landing F-35B variant.
But when Defense News visited the base on May 17, maintainers at the base echoed concerns heard around the F-35 enterprise: As home to some of the military’s oldest F-35s, aircraft availability is suffering as planes sit waiting for spare parts and for key hardware and software modifications.
When maintainers enter in orders for components needed to repair the jet, the F-35’s Autonomic Logistics Information System — which walks users through maintenance and helps manage the supply chain — will sometimes project an expected arrival of “a couple years out,” said Sgt. Pedro, a maintenance controller from VMFAT-501. Defense News agreed not to publish last names of Marines associated with VMFAT-501 due to security concerns.
“That’s [just] a forecasting,” Pedro quickly added. “Then we make a call and find out where it’s actually at, and so we get the parts sooner than what the forecast date is.”
One of the features of ALIS allows it to see the number and types of parts available across the entire supply chain, which is shared by the U.S. services and international F-35 operators. The system can reprioritize parts, so sometimes maintainers can actually receive a part as quickly as three to five days even if a longer date is projected.
However, it’s not uncommon for certain parts to take around a month, Pedro said.
In some scenarios, maintainers will “cannibalize” other F-35s — harvesting parts from one unavailable jet to repair another. That practice isn’t uncommon across fighter fleets and has been used to service F-15s and F/A-18s, but Pedro said that cannibalizing aircraft is a last resort.
“Before we start looking at cannibalizing that part, if it says a year out, we’ll monitor it,” he said. “Because the next report might say, ‘We have that part. It was going to be prioritized to that unit, but you need it more.’ So it will reprioritize that part.”
Beaufort isn’t the only base impacted by the spare parts shortage; the problem reaches all the way across the F-35 enterprise.
Due to a lack of parts available, F-35s worldwide were unable to fly about 22 percent of the time from January 2017 through Aug. 7, 2017, the Government Accountability Office reported in 2017.
GAO offered one explanation for the problem: the Defense Department simply didn’t take into account the time necessary to put parts under contract and produce them when it was doing its budget planning.
“Nineteen percent of F-35 parts have a lead time of more than 2 years,” the GAO noted. “However, program office and military service officials told us that the timing of prior service funding authorizations and contract awards did not account for this long lead time to procure parts, resulting in parts that were late to meet the military services’ operational needs.”
A Lockheed Martin team recently visited MCAS Beaufort and spoke with pilots, maintainers and base leadership on how it could help Marines get spare parts quicker and discuss other sustainment problems, Lockheed spokesman Mike Friedman told Defense News in a statement.
Some of the actions the company is taking to address concerns about long waits for spares include: pre-funding spares before a contract is awarded; working with suppliers to improve the reliability and availability of key parts; and ramping up both industry and government’s ability to repair parts.
The company also wants to explore options for using 3D printed parts, which can be made rapidly when old parts break, Friedman said.
Modifications for older F-35s contributing to low availability
Thirty F-35Bs are based at Beaufort: 11 jets belonging to the U.K. Royal Air Force and 19 U.S. Marine Corps planes.
Those aircraft run the gamut from those equipped with the 2B software — an early version with a restricted flight envelope and weapons carrying capability, ones with improved 3I software that the Air Force used when it declared its jets operational in 2016, and the final 3F software that allows for full warfighting capability.
All of the F-35s at Beaufort will eventually be brought up to the 3F standard, but doing the software and hardware modifications necessary to turn an early version of the jet into a fully-capable version takes time and a toll on the squadron’s aircraft availability.
On any given day, there are several aircraft undergoing modifications either at Beaufort or the Fleet Readiness Center at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point in North Carolina, said Maj. Andrew, VMFAT-501’s assistant operations officer.
“There’s always constant [modification activity],” he said. “As parts become available [and] that aircraft can afford to go down for however it takes to get that done to it, the program will schedule in those modifications to those aircraft.”
Headquarters Marine Corps in the Pentagon and leaders at Beaufort refused to comment on the average number of planes ready to fly at Beaufort, citing 2017 memos by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis urging Defense Department personnel to be cautious about divulging information related to readiness.
“We are unable to provide readiness rates or the number of available aircraft for any platform and especially for a specific squadron due to operational security concerns and per the guidance of Secretary Mattis,” Marine Corps spokeswoman Capt. Sarah Mobilio stated.
However, the base has had one of the lowest availability rates across the F-35 enterprise. In fiscal year 2017, Beaufort’s 28 F-35B aircraft accumulated a dismal 38 percent average availability rate, meaning that only one third of the base’s B models were ready to go at a given time, according to data published in a 2018 report by the Pentagon’s director of operational test and evaluation.
Only the F-35Bs undergoing tests at Edwards Air Force Base posted a lower rate, at 35 percent.
While having older F-35s may cause some issues on the maintenance side, it doesn’t affect pilot training at all, said Lt. Col. Adam Levine, who commands VMFAT-501.
“All software versions that we have on the ramp here can accomplish 100 percent of the administrative and training tasks that we have,” he said. “And we’re delivering these pilots — brand new lieutenants — to front line operational units, and there is no complaint from the customer.”
As of May 24, the squadron has completed training of 16 F-35B pilots over the course of fiscal year 2018, Mobilio said.
ALIS improving…but slowly
ALIS, the F-35’s logistics system, has been slammed by F-35 critics for being overly burdensome and requiring its users to often work around the system’s limitations. As the software improves, maintainers are noting better performance, but say it still needs improvement.
“It’s slow,” Pedro said, and that may be a problem specific to Beaufort, as Marines at MCAS Yuma in Arizona are reportedly experiencing faster ALIS response times.
“We have a bunch of aircraft out there. And we have only so many servers,” he said. “They have less aircraft, and their servers aren’t booting up as much information.”
Another maintainer told Defense News that ALIS’ 2.0.2 software update, a version of which is used at Beaufort, is helping speed up engine maintenance. ALIS 2.0.2 marked the first time the F-35’s Pratt & Whitney F135 engine was fully integrated with the system, allowing it to pull data from the F135 and run diagnostics.
However, a number of workarounds are still needed, for instance, when that data does not import correctly, the maintainer said.
Friedman, a spokesman for Lockheed, said the company is “making improvements to ALIS to enhance the user experience, improve work flow and lower maintenance labor and material cost.”
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.