Supply challenges and unshared lessons learned of the F-35 could imperil the high-tech aircraft’s operational effectiveness or ability to stay in the sky, according to a recent Government Accountability Office report released Wednesday.
Since the first operational deployment of the Corps’ F-35B to Iwakuni, Japan, in January 2017, the Corps has seen part shortages, delays at customs, poor reliability of certain parts, long repair times and inaccurate delivery times.
According to the report, the Defense Department has no formal mechanism to share the Corps’ after-action reports that the service has kept on its own internal website.
“Without the F-35 program office’s sharing or making available operational lessons learned through a new or existing communications mechanism, the services are at risk of not having access to key information that could affect their movements, exercises, operations, and sustainment of the aircraft in the Pacific and other areas where they operate,” the report reads.
Since the F-35 deployed to Japan the Corps has been “facing challenges operating in the area” and the force is “uncertain how long the F-35 can effectively operate” if the Autonomic Logistics Information System, or ALIS becomes “disconnected from the aircraft,” the report states.
The ALIS is a high-tech computer system that informs maintainers of the craft of upcoming maintenance and parts needs that help sustain the aircraft.
The GAO report was based on a review of Marine Corps after-action reports from December 2015 to July 2017. December 2015 marked “the date of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121’s first recorded operational exercise.”
At the 2015 Steel Knight exercise near Twentynine Palms, California, the Corps recorded “issues related to the tents used to house the ALIS” and the “need for maintaining network connectivity, and the limited reach-back support for ALIS,” according to the GAO report.
During exercise Red Flag aboard Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, in July 2016, VMFA-121 squadron noted accomplishments such as the “F-35 using its sensors to share data with legacy platforms” and better stealth capability over other aging aircraft. They also reported the need for classified facilities “to meet basic cooling and power requirements for housing the ALIS servers,” the report states.
When the Corps transferred the F-35 to Japan in 2017 after-action reports revealed the need to consider weather issues when shipping the ALIS system.
“While the aircraft were transferred to Japan through Alaska, ALIS was moved through Hawaii because of concerns about how the freezing temperature would affect the logistics system.”
The formal sharing of these lessons learned could aid the Navy and the Air Force as they ramp up their F-35 deployments overseas.
Since the DoD has no formal means to communicate these reports, the Corps has largely relied on informal means such as personal relationships and telephone calls to Navy and Air Force officials.
Though, in 2000, the DoD did establish the Joint Lessons Learned Program to “prevent lessons learned from being captured in a vacuum within each military service,” the report says.
But despite the program, the Corps, Navy, and Air Force are not formally disseminating F-35 after-action reports.
It’s a major problem as all three branches are planning to expand F-35 operations over the next several years in the Pacific to compete with a rising threats in the region like China.
The GAO report made one recommendation to the DoD to create a formal mechanism or means to communicate and share F-35 after action reports across the military.
Shawn Snow is the senior reporter for Marine Corps Times and a Marine Corps veteran.