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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat - 19FortyFive

Logistics Could Doom the Mighty F-35 In a War

F-35s could find themselves grounded for want of spare parts and kindred support. A supply shortage can knock a fighter jet out of the wild blue as surely as an enemy missile can, if perhaps not as devastatingly.

An F-35A Lightning II pilot turns his aircraft along the yellow taxi line on the 33rd Fighter Wing flightline at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. (U.S. Air Force photo by Samuel King Jr./Released)

Just-in-time logistics . . . isn’t. Not in the military arena, anyway. Over at the WarZone, Joseph Trevithick is all over the story of how faulty assumptions about logistics threaten to degrade allied air forces’ fleets of stealthy F-35 joint strike fighters during armed strife, when they’re needed most. F-35s could find themselves grounded for want of spare parts and kindred support. 

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A supply shortage can knock a fighter jet out of the wild blue as surely as an enemy missile can, if perhaps not as devastatingly. A grounded warbird contributes little to the fight for command of the air. 

At fault is a misplaced obsession with efficiency and cost-effectiveness, which stands in tension with combat efficacy. The F-35 program was “set up to be very efficient” and to depend on a “just-in-time kind of supply chain,” according to Lieutenant General Michael Schmidt, the U.S. Air Force overseer of the F-35 Joint Program Office, who spoke at the Navy League’s Sea Air Space Expo earlier this month. “I’m not sure that that works always in a contested environment.” 

And how. 

If anything General Schmidt understates the problem. Seldom if ever would such a system work in a contested environment. And yet generations of armed-forces chieftains have exhibited a weird fetish for adapting business practices to military affairs, a domain manifestly unsuited to them. The U.S. Navy seized on W. Edwards Deming’s Total Quality Management system for awhile, Bill Smith’s Lean Six Sigma was all the rage, Steven Spear’s High Velocity Learning had its day in the sun, you name it. 

Just in Time Logistics is yet another import from the business world. 

Now, by no means do I intend this as a slur on business folk. They love efficiency, as well they should. To all appearances this mode of logistics works as advertised in the steady-state environment for which it was devised. To keep this discussion in the realm of flight, think about an airline. Airliners lift off on a scripted schedule, maneuver gently enroute to their destinations, and touch down, all in a peacetime setting where the supply chain supposedly turns smoothly and reliably. 

In such permissive surroundings it makes eminent sense to furnish the precise type and amount of supplies an aircraft needs for upkeep, where and when it needs them. Just-in-time deliveries eliminate waste, bolster efficiency, and help a firm make best use of the profit-loss equation. 

But predictability is the keystone. Military competition and warfare jerk that keystone out of the operational edifice, leaving it to collapse on itself. 

Suppose, to push the airline example further than we probably should, that Delta Air Lines got in a literal trade war with American. The antagonists would go out of their way to obstruct each other’s operations in hopes of wringing a commercial advantage from bareknuckles competition. They might resort to sabotage on the ground, interfere to keep opposing aircrews from reaching their planes on time, or, yes, do their damnedest to sow mayhem in their rival’s supply chain to impair aircraft reliability. 

Predictability would vanish along with the rules of the game of mercantile rivalry. And pandemonium would ensue. Guess how well just-in-time logistics would work in such a topsy-turvy business environment. Not well. 

And yet that’s the analogue to martial strife, a realm where transients, not steady-state operations, are the rule. The enemy gets a vote in the success of your strategy and operations, and will doubtless try to veto it. U.S. Air Force strategy guru Colonel John Boyd enjoins the would-be victor to take control of the surroundings and change them around his foe, springing “fast transients” that disorient the foe to friendly advantage. 

And then there’s what the Prussian soldier Carl von Clausewitz calls the “atmosphere” of war. “Danger, physical exertion, intelligence, and friction,” says Clausewitz, “coalesce” to form an intensely complex, nonlinear, unpredictable setting where each combatant tries to impose its will on an unwilling opponent determined to get its own way. And that’s leaving aside all of the dark passions—enmity, hatred, spite—that tend to send war careening off on unforeseeable tangents. 

Boyd and Clausewitz would jeer at the idea that an air force would try to institute just-in-time logistics amid such unruly surroundings. They would regard such an effort as whimsy born of a long peace. And they would be right. 

But General Schmidt hints that uprooting just-in-time thinking will be harder than simply mandating that F-35 manufacturers, maintainers, and users do things differently. He discerns a “just-in-time mentality,” implying that this outlook is graven on the cultures of the institutions that build, fly, and support joint strike fighters. “When you have that mentality,” he maintains, “a hiccup in the supply chain, whether it be a [labor] strike . . . or a quality issue . . . then that becomes your single point of failure.” 

And again, Schmidt is talking about the easy case. He’s talking about peacetime operations, not a wartime battleground where the People’s Liberation Army or Russian military is doing its utmost to disrupt the logistics train for U.S. stealth aircraft and other platforms. Succeeding in the latter is an order of magnitude tougher. 

Cultures are stubborn things. Once a fad from the business world gets transcribed into bureaucratic rules and procedures, and once the institution reinforces the fad by instituting career incentives and penalties that prompt officials to go along with it, even a misbegotten way of doing things is prone to resist going gentle into that good night. Fads mold minds. 

So it sounds as though a cultural counterrevolution may be necessary within the military-industrial complex to ensure F-35s can take to the skies in sufficient numbers for battle. 

Why a counterrevolution? Well, in wars of old, military commanders grokked that they needed an excess of ammunition, fuel, and stores of all kinds to be sure of having enough on hand at the time and place of action. That may have been wasteful and inefficient, but it was necessary to prevail. This conviction was central to commanders’ assumptions about the profession of arms. 

A surplus might be enough: that’s wisdom worth rediscovering—and re-encoding in institutional DNA—as part of the U.S. military’s great relearning of timeless verities. Let’s stockpile what fighting forces need, along with conveyances to get supplies where they need to go. And let’s do it now. 

Begone, just-in-time logistics. 

Dr. James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a Nonresident Fellow at the Brute Krulak Center, Marine Corps University. His book, Habits of Highly Effective Maritime Strategists, was recently nominated for the U.K. Maritime Foundation’s Mountbatten Award for Best Book of 2022. The views voiced here are his alone.

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”



  1. T Paine

    April 16, 2023 at 8:47 am

    In addition to a parts problem and a poor readiness record, the F-35 also suffers from hundreds of mechanical design flaws 10 of which are Category 1 deficiencies that may cause death, illness or loss of aircraft. And now there is a cry for repowering the aircraft which will cost billions more.

    This is what $1.7 trillion (and counting) buys us taxpayers these days. While we focus our investment on one poorly performing platform, China leaps ahead in hypersonic missiles and nuclear weapons while greatly expanding their land, sea, and air capabilities.

    Our military procurement thinkers need a reboot, but no one is holding them accountable for their blunders. They keep asking for more $$$$ and Congress showers them with more. Madness.

  2. 403Forbidden

    April 16, 2023 at 10:18 am

    F-35s will be like the F-111 of nam war fame.

    During the famous nam war, the initial combat debut of F-111 proved disastrous.

    Many aircraft simply failed to return from night missions even though they were equipped with state-of-the-art terrain following radar.

    The reason or cause was only discovered when surviving aircraft were returned to the US and put through their paces. Then, the pilot shouted A-ha, Eureka, I found it !!!

    Ditto the f-35 when it is finally put through the stress and grind of daily combat against bat-from-hell opponents.

  3. David Chang

    April 16, 2023 at 3:36 pm

    God bless people in the world.

    Commercial efficiency is the basic condition of the free market, and because of this, collision compensation, general average and marine insurance are additional necessary conditions. However, without the basic or necessary conditions in war, no people should be liable for post-war compensation even if there is war insurance, and rumor has it that Captain Mahan agrees with this policy.

    Although the military logistics must be completed asap, we are limited by uncertain cause and delay the mission. For risk management, to reduce the risk making from uncertain causes, the similar regulation is the risk agent. To keep the backup plan at any time and keep two responsible persons who can perform the same task, and must also keep inventory double at any time.

    So the U.S. representatives and senators should let people in the world understand that war is expensive and preparation requires more time.

    God bless America.

  4. Webej

    April 16, 2023 at 5:41 pm

    The 17 countries were noted 3×. No mention of the strong-arm tactics the US employs to keep vassal states in line. It kind of reminds me of an 18 month multi-level evaluation, specifications, and comparison involving dozens of people and costing hundreds of thousands, which finally decided to go with Microsoft Office.

    As for the kill ratios, unless i’m ignorant, the F-35 has never been in a dog fight or breached hostile Air Defenses.

  5. Georgina Will

    April 16, 2023 at 8:20 pm

    On small navy ships they routinely carry a PUK for the embarked helicopters. For a two aircraft compliment it is routine to have a very expensive helicopter engine sealed up in a can stowed away in case it is needed. Stowed away for MONTHS AT A TIME! The very antithesis of “just in time”. However, if that engine is needed and not stowed away on board the ship…guess how long the aircraft will be non flyable waiting for an engine to be shipped half way around the world…? Naval expeditionary forces cannot operate using “just in time” during peacetime…much less in a hot war.

  6. John

    April 16, 2023 at 8:35 pm

    Per Rand any short range US fighter is at high risk to be destroyed on the ground by Chinese missile barrages in a Pacific war unless there is disbursed basing, decoys etc. However fuel and munition storage points unlikely to survive.
    We need many more long range strike options. More P-8s, restore and rewing B-1, build long range RQ180 and avenger Cs.
    Give KC-46 long range strike capability
    Build long range loitering munitions. Build long range SM-6.
    Ramp up B-21. Reverse cancellation of ARRW
    The USAF and USN continue to live in the 20th century spending hundreds of billions of dollars on short range fighters and super carriers instead of redirecting some of those monies to long range strike options

  7. Big Jake

    April 17, 2023 at 8:54 am


    Bwahahahahaha! OMG….

  8. Big Jake

    April 17, 2023 at 8:58 am

    The B-1 doesn’t need a new wing, it needs a new dorsal fuselage spine. It’s not a cheap fix

  9. Mario

    April 17, 2023 at 11:59 am

    Thank God we have Eurofighters!!!

  10. Brian Foley

    April 17, 2023 at 12:24 pm

    There’s an old axiom about war “Amateurs talk about tactics, rank amateurs talks about strategy, real professionals discuss logistics”. “Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chase”.

  11. Walt Anderson

    April 17, 2023 at 12:55 pm

    Thanks for the pessimism. We MAY not be able to support the F-35 in a conflict that MAY or MAY NOT happen, and no amount of planning can change this pessimistic prediction. As a former B-52 pilot, I am sick and tired of reading anti-military predictions of America’s demise. What we really need are leaders with spines to rebuild America’s military readiness. Peace through Strength still works.

  12. Ben d'Mydogtags

    April 17, 2023 at 1:31 pm

    This is not an F35 problem it is a supply-chain logistics problem. Parts shortages will ground any aircraft or any other complex system. Just ask the Iranians about trying to maintain their ancient F14s. At least the F35 will have a huge installed base across multiple branches and allies, so parts inventories will exist widely dispersed, or as a last resort there will be planes to cannibalize.

  13. NorEastern

    April 17, 2023 at 1:52 pm

    Every single modern fighter will face logistics problems during war time. That is certainly not the F-35’s issue alone. But the most important facts are that the F-35 features a 20:1 kill ratio against 4th generation fighters, and that the F-35 is purpose built to take out S-400 and other advanced A2/AD platforms. After the F-35s complete their work the Vipers and Hornets can clean up the mess easily.

  14. Jeff in NM

    April 17, 2023 at 2:24 pm

    What I found interesting is the term spare parts was only mentioned 2x in this article Are spare part issues related to items made by other countries; if so what particular supplier countries? I would ave thought all US military aircraft would have required USA sourced parts, apparently not? Is the spare part concern related to parts perhaps made in ROC-Tawain parts, as this small country makes so many semiconductor parts that was crippling to the USA vehicle market. If so, it seems to beg an even larger question as to why?

  15. Doyle

    April 17, 2023 at 3:20 pm

    The demise of the F-35 has been greatly exaggerated but let the little arm chair critics have their day. By the time the F-35s need these supposed short supply spare parts who will be left flying on the other side?

  16. John

    April 18, 2023 at 12:04 am

    Ok DF-17 and DF-27 hypersonic missiles can strike our bases in Guam and Hawai. Our fighters will be destroyed on the ground. Our carriers will be hit in port.
    However Space X Falcon Heavies and superheavies could be loaded up with antiship and antisatellite missiles such as SM-6 and quickly attack ships and even satellites.
    We need to invest much more to create our own conventional missile force. A mobile conventional Trident D5 version would be a consideration. Yet we self deter and let the decepticons have all the good stuff

  17. D S

    April 23, 2023 at 4:27 pm

    In a hot war against a capable enemy, like China or Russia, there is a chance that a conventional or unconventional strike against factories producing needed parts could be attacked and taken off line. Stopping production for weeks, months or longer. As in world war 2 the means of production are legitimate targets. The generals cannot seriously think there would be no attempts to stop production of their missiles, aircraft, etc.

  18. GhostTomahawk

    April 24, 2023 at 1:58 pm

    Sure am glad we dumped the F14. That plane was expensive to maintain. ????

    There were plans to modernize the Tomcat which would’ve been vastly cheaper. No one really is ever going to use stealth fighters in open war. They’re too expensive.

  19. ATM

    April 27, 2023 at 7:36 am

    No one can afford real training flight time in a F-35 and as a result pilots spend most of their time in simulation. The result is the thinnest real supply chain in combat aircraft history.

    It is bad enough that pilots spend most of the time on the ground in peace, but If a war lasts more than a few days we will see these things falling out of the sky on their own.

  20. Winston Smith

    May 2, 2023 at 11:00 pm

    The F-35 is analogous with the state of America in 2023: overpriced, unsustainable and doomed to failure.

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