Warranties aren’t generally something we think about when it comes to military hardware, but perhaps the Pentagon needs to look into it. Just last month, the Department of Defense (DoD) was forced to ground nearly its entire fleet of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters following a defect that was initially discovered back in April. The problem involved the fifth-generation fighter jet’s ejector seat, which in an emergency may not have functioned properly – and could have even resulted in the death of a pilot.
“During a routine maintenance inspection at Hill [Air Force Base, Utah,] in April ’22, an anomaly was discovered with one of the seat cartridge actuated devices in the F-35 seat,” Steve Roberts, a spokesperson for seat manufacturer Martin-Baker, told reporters last Friday. “This was quickly traced back to a gap in the manufacturing process, which was addressed and changed.”
Every single F-35 is now being evaluated, and only a handful of aircraft had been affected.
“The engineer who found the problem said it was an anomaly,” explained Matthew J. Schmidt, Ph.D., associate professor of national security and political science at the University of New Haven. “It is really less of an issue than it seems.”
However, it is hardly an isolated problem. Crewmembers serving aboard the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78), the U.S. Navy’s newest nuclear-powered supercarrier, have had to deal with toilets that clog frequently. The matter, which had also impacted the final Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77), has been ongoing, and requires the sewage systems – similar to those on commercial aircraft – to be treated with an acid flush on a more regular basis.
However, each time that costs around $400,000.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) had identified it as an “unplanned maintenance action for the entire service life of a ship.” How much that will add to the sustainment cost remains an unknown as it is unclear how many times the process will need to be repeated.
“This is a serious problem, but we should remember that it is just $400,000 for a warship that costs $13 billion,” Schmidt told ClearanceJobs. “Part of the issue is that these are large systems, and development started 30 years ago.”
No Military Recalls
When a commercial automobile has an issue, companies issue a recall; while if a TV shows up from Amazon not working, the retailer typically replaces it. For the Pentagon, defects are handled differently.
“Unfortunately, military contractors appear to be mostly immune to the sorts of product recalls that consumer and business goods are subject to,” technology analyst Charles King of Pund-IT told ClearanceJobs.
“In part, that’s due to the lack of competition inherent in the government bidding process,” King continued. “Sure, makers of weapons, vehicles, and other gear compete with one another for specific contracts, but once those have been awarded the victors get to work and the losers are mostly left behind. High degrees of specialization and complexity also limit the number of companies that are capable of producing military goods. Finally, there are few if any independent organizations reviewing and rating military equipment in ways similar to consumer watchdogs.”
Lessons From History
Fortunately, the defects with the F-35 occurred in peacetime, and didn’t seem to impact national security. Likewise, the toilet issue is being addressed as well. However, in the past, some failures to address military hardware shortcomings have cost U.S. lives.
Among the most infamous was the introduction of the M-16 assault rifles in Vietnam. It remains the worst example of how the bureaucratic system is no friend to the soldiers on the frontline.
The experimental model, theXM16E1 rifle, which was a considerable innovation in that it was light and accurate, worked almost flawlessly when it was first employed in combat at the Battle of Ia Drang (which was recreated in the film We Were Soldiers). Yet, with extended use, the weapons had a tendency to break – not exactly ideal for soldiers in the field.
The problem was eventually traced to two issues: first, the U.S. Army willfully used the wrong powder with its ammunition, while the chamber and bore of the barrels weren’t chrome plated – as chrome had initially been seen as an unnecessary expense. Once the military made the switch from ball powder to stick powder, and introduced chrome-plated barrels, many of the problems were quickly addressed.
Another small, but crucial, change was also made – namely that cleaning kits were finally provided.
The M-16 had been unwisely touted as being self-cleaning, which it wasn’t. In fact, an official U.S. Army training manual stated, “an occasional cleaning will keep the weapon functioning indefinitely.” It was bad advice, but eventually, the Army saw the error of its ways, and introduced a new manual – one that was in the form of a comic book featuring a buxom blonde narrator, who instructed soldiers “How to Strip Your Baby,” and other maintenance tips.
Even with such lessons, the military is often forced to go through a similar trial and error process when introducing new hardware.
“It is arguable that submitting military equipment to similar testing and rating processes would improve both its quality and the safety of troops in the field,” said King. “However, that sort of assessment and accountability seems to have been left out of the equation for military goods.”
No Right to Repair
What can often complicate matters is that today’s warfighters often aren’t allowed to work on their equipment for a plethora of reasons. The military essentially continues to struggle with the so-called “right to repair.”
The same issue that is now affecting America’s farmers, who can’t repair their tractors; and workers at McDonald’s who deal with a broken milkshake machine; warfighters often can’t try to fix something that is actually broken.
The issue had gotten so great that in November 2019, United States Marine Corps Captain Elle Ekman wrote an op-ed for The New York Times to draw attention to the challenges that service members often face. Ekman explained that this was due to the fact that the Pentagon had signed procurement contracts for everything from generators to trucks to MRAPs that covered the purchase of the vehicle, but also included strict maintenance regimes. Moreover, the contracts even placed restrictions on maintenance, and required manufacturer-affiliated contractors to perform the work.
While the right to repair is now slowly being resolved, another issue is that often times the military has developed hardware suited for the last conflict – not the next one.
“This is the bigger issue with the $13 billion supercarriers the Navy is now building,” warned Schmidt. “It was designed before the advent of hypersonic missiles and drones. That’s nobody’s fault, as one couldn’t have anticipated such technological changes, but we’re continuing to move forward with the same weapons.”
Professionals With Off-the-Shelf Technology
The solution could be to rely more on off-the-shelf technology rather than trying to develop something new.
“We see this with the low-grade sensors that can be employed in missiles,” suggested Schmidt. “Why are we developing new and very expensive sensors, which simply drive up the costs? Instead, we could buy the cheaper sensors we have now, and put them on 500 missiles. If just 100 of those missiles hit their targets we’ve still come out ahead.”
Another consideration is that our modern military is truly a professional force, and are thus capable of handling the repairs.
“Under Creighton Williams Abrams, the military became an all-volunteer force,” Schmidt told ClearanceJobs. “The training is better, their skills even coming into the military is better, and they can be upskilled quickly.”
The Pentagon shouldn’t be forced to rely on contractors to fix the F-35s or unclog toilets when there is a skilled force to do so.
“This would allow problems to be solved faster,” added Schmidt. “We need to see the service members as professionals.”