America's Military Can’t Repair Its Own $1.7 Trillion Jet

Only about half of the U.S.’s fleet of F-35 fighter jets is operational at any time due to difficulties with repairs, which must go through contractors.
U.S. Air Force photo.

Like Apple’s new iPhone, America’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is expensive and hard to repair without intervention from the original manufacturer. According to a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), a bipartisan watchdog group in D.C., F-35s are only available for missions about half the time. A whole lot of these expensive jets are sitting in storage because they’re waiting on repair parts.


The F-35 is a troubled aircraft that’s been on the GAO’s radar for years. Its new report on the jet, “DOD and the Military Services Need to Reassess the Future Sustainment Strategy,” drilled down into why the aircraft spent so much time on the tarmac and not in the skies. “The F-35 fleet mission capable rate—the percentage of time the aircraft can perform one of its tasked missions—was about 55 percent in March 2023, far below program goals,” the GAO said. “The program was behind schedule in establishing depot maintenance activities to conduct repairs. As a result, component repair times remained slow with over 10,000 waiting to be repaired.”

Right now, the care and upkeep of F-35s has been contracted out to third parties. If something breaks on an F-35, it’s usually fixed by a defense contractor and not military engineers. This is part of why the jet is so expensive. “DOD has estimated overall costs for the program at more than $1.7 trillion over its life cycle, with the majority of the costs, about $1.3 trillion, associated with sustaining the aircraft,” the GAO said.

The goal has long been for the Pentagon to take over routine maintenance of the aircraft, but it’s not going well. When something breaks on the F-35, it takes the Pentagon an average of 141 days to repair it. That’s a long time for a jet to be grounded, but it's actually an improvement from the last time the GAO conducted the survey in 2017. Back then it took the DoD 172 days to fix a piece of the jet. The goal is to get that number down to 60. “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.”


Other indicators have gotten worse, not better. In 2019, there was a backlog of 4,300 parts waiting on repair. In 2023, that number is up to 10,000, but the GAO did say that some of this is due to an increased number of F-35s overall. The problem of waiting on repair parts has gotten so bad, however, that the DoD is simply buying new parts instead of waiting to repair old ones. 

“According to DoD officials, this is a practice that program officials do not believe is a sustainable solution,” the GAO said. It’s also an expensive one. Buying new parts instead of repairing old ones is part of why the F-35 will cost the U.S. $1.7 trillion.

According to the GAO, the Pentagon is 12 years behind schedule in getting its repair shops up and running. The military needs to be able to repair 68 individual components itself. The list includes stuff like ejection seats, landing gear, and the power thermal management system. Right now, it can only repair 44 of the components. Everything else has to go through contractors. “Delays in standing up the F-35 program’s depot repair capacity has had several effects, including slow repair times, a growing backlog of components needing repair, and lower aircraft readiness,” the GAO said.

The F-35 has long been a troubled aircraft. Last week, an F-35B went missing over the skies of South Carolina after a Marine pilot ejected. The Pentagon lost the jet for a few hours before eventually recovering it after it crashed. This is just the latest in a long list of accidents and mishaps that have destroyed F-35s over the past few years.

Everytime an F-35 catches fire at random or shoots itself by accident, contractors make a little more money and the overall cost of the project goes up a little more.