Air Force Chief Admits To Matt Gaetz That Lockheed Martin Basically Controls F-35 Fighter Jet Program

Screenshot / Rep. Matt Gaetz @RepMattGaetz / X /

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Micaela Burrow Investigative Reporter, Defense
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Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall admitted to struggling for influence over the troubled F-35 advanced fighter jet when GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida pressed him on builder Lockheed Martin’s control of the program.

A government watchdog investigation released April 15 reported that the F-35 Lighting II has consistently failed to meet performance goals while continuing to rise in projected costs over the lengthening lifespan of the program. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found the Department of Defense (DOD) relies excessively on the prime contractor Lockheed Martin for maintenance, sustainment and upgrades, which Gaetz said essentially gave the company control over the Air Force’s “signature” platform at a hearing Wednesday.

“If Lockheed martin built the F-35, only 29% of them are fully operationally capable right now, we’ve all agreed that’s failing,” Gaetz said.

Kendall did not agree that it was failing.

“Now the question is why is it failing, and the [Government Accountability Office] report says the reason it’s failing is because the fox is watching the henhouse,” Gaetz said. (RELATED: F-35 Costs Skyrocketed Due To Pentagon’s Lack Of Foresight, Officials Tell Congress)

Kendall said he first asked, aloud, when he was introduced to the program in 2010, “Who’s running this program, the government or Lockheed Martin?”

“I think you have your answer Mr. Secretary,” Gaetz responded.

Kendall lamented giving Lockheed complete control of the program.

“We are still fighting that problem today … we took a lot of steps to try to get that under control,” he said.

The Air Force wants performance targets at a minimum of 80%. However, none of the variants operated by the U.S. military has met target mission capable rates, defined as the “the percentage of time the aircraft can perform one of its tasked missions,” or full mission capable rates, defined as “the percentage of time during which the aircraft can perform all tasked missions,” over the 5-year period GAO studied in the latest report.

Full mission capable rates varied by variant from a low of 14.9% to a high of 36.4% in 2023, according to the GAO. Most of the trouble could be attributed to a backlog in maintenance and the Air Force’s inability to source new parts.

“We have consistently found that the F-35 fleet is not meeting its availability goals, which are measured by mission capable rates … despite increasing projected costs” the GAO wrote.

Lockheed said the company “actively” partners with the U.S. and other governments through the JPO “to address F-35 readiness,” in a statement to the Daily Caller News Foundation.

Gaetz asked what percentage of F-35 Lightning IIs, the U.S.’s only fifth-generation advanced fighter jet, are “fully mission capable” to date.

Kendall checked his prepared statistics and relayed the number for “operational availability” stood at 55%.

“Do you think that’s a good number or a bad number?” Gaetz asked.

“I think that’s not a good number,” Kendall said.

Gaetz said Lt. Gen Schmidt, who heads the F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO) with builder Lockheed Martin and international partners, had provided testimony that only 29% of the fleet was fully mission capable, although that number does not appear in the written testimony provided Tuesday.

Schmidt said in written testimony provided ahead of Wednesday’s hearing he had undertaken a “War on Readiness” to increase the fleet’s Mission Capable (MC) rate to 64% by March 2024.

But when the target date arrived, the fleet MC rate averaged just 55.7%, up only 2.6% since the goal was set the previous March, the testimony stated.

“Over the past year, mission capable rates have risen above the 64% target for short periods; however, we have not yet sustained the levels of readiness our users expect,” Schmidt said. “These figures indicate only a slight improvement over the past year, and these rates remain unacceptable.”

Gen. George Allvin, the Air Force Chief of Staff, said he did not have the latest data on how many of the fleet was fully mission capable but did not dispute what the JPO provided. While 29% would be a failure for the fully mission capable target, he began to dispute that it applied to the fighter’s overall missions when Getz cut him off.

The JPO referred the DCNF to Schmidt’s written testimony.

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