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The global F-35 effort: A model of cooperation

U.S. Air Force F-35 Lightning IIs from the 356th Fighter Squadron at Eielson Air Force Base fly side by side with Republic of Korea Air Force F-35s from the 151st and 152nd Combat Flight Squadrons as part of a bilateral exercise over the Yellow Sea, Republic of Korea, July 12, 2022. Combined training demonstrates our commitment to the defense of South Korea and is the foundation of maintaining a robust defense posture. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Trevor Gordnier)

SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. — Representatives from countries with F-35s arrived at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois, on April 19 to discuss a shared problem affecting their fifth-generation fighters: getting spare parts.

Over 60 foreign nationals and Defense Department employees joined the quarterly global asset management working group. During which, U.S. Transportation Command hosted the various uniformed members and civilians in attendance.

According to USTRANSCOM’s chief of distribution process initiatives, Walter Reed, — who helped organize this quarter’s working group — these meetings are necessary to solve the F-35’s global asset management process.

The discussions had here will, “lay the foundation for all the partner participants, foster communication, and help us discover solutions to unique problems,” Reed said.

One problem the working group is looking to solve is the shortage of spare parts, which has resulted in aircraft being unavailable. A 2022 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office noted that while U.S. F-35s have improved their mission capability rates, the fighter aircraft “still fall short of program goals,” citing lack of spare parts and maintenance equipment as key contributors.

However, the Program Executive Officer of the F-35 Joint Program Office Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael Schmidt said that the “current average mission capable (MC) rate across the U.S. Services’ F-35 fleet is 56%.” And that “our deployed, combat coded fleet significantly exceeds this average.

“The war on readiness is an effort to drive increased MC rates across the fleet with a goal of achieving a 64% MC rate by April 2024 … Continued investment in readiness will enable the F-35 JPO to return to green for critical degraders, return aircraft back to the fight, increase efficiency of our flight-line maintainers, accelerate reduction of the current repair work in progress backlog, and move us towards our MC rate goals,” the general continued.

These challenges are compounded by the fact that, unlike other military aircraft, all F-35 operating nations share the same pool of spare parts. This was done to lower costs, as that too is shared amongst the 17 countries funding the program.

During the 2023 Sea-Air-Space conference, Schmidt said that “the international aspect of this program is absolutely incredible.”

“This program is unlike any other,” he continued. “We have international partners … [who] have invested in the development of this program along with the United States. They together pay about 20% of all the development costs in this program.”

While great in theory, it has opened the program to unique challenges like a complicated supply chain and adhering to diverse customs and import laws each participating country employs.

To solve these problems, the JPO established a Service Level Agreement with USTRANSCOM for global transportation and distribution and the Defense Logistics Agency for North American warehousing.

This shift brings global benefits, said Royal Netherlands Air Force Lt. Col. Roberto Joannes, global asset management lead on behalf of the Dutch, during the quarterly working group at Scott Air Force Base.

“We are creating … a system for the program to enable freedom of movement of [global spare pool] items to support the F-35 anywhere in the world,” Joannes said. “USTRANSCOM will be responsible for transport management, and that’s why the [JPO] asked the separate countries to create and test out a [customs] duty system.”

“We have a fifth-gen weapon system, and we will fly with this system for the next 30, 40, plus years. So, we need a long-term vision,” he continued. “You don’t create it today or tomorrow. But we have to have a collective vision to increase the availability, affordability, and agility of our weapons system. I believe in this program, and we must do it as a team, together — not for ourselves, but for the warfighter.” 

The group, diverse in uniform, language, and nationality, is united under one ideology: support the warfighter. It’s this shared passion that propels the F-35 to new heights, outpacing competitors to win tomorrow’s high-end fight.

Reed shared this sentiment, saying that working with the various nations has been enlightening for him and that while the meetings are great, the beauty lies in the friendships made along the way. 

“While the conversations we have in these regular meetings are great, it’s outside of the room where the action really happens,” Reed said. “It’s when we get into small groups, talk offline, and really get to know each other that we listen versus just talk. You don’t enact great change without having these deep discussions and understanding.”

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