The Defense Logistics Agency is increasing supply chain visibility of the F-35 joint strike fighter while working to boost readiness.
"As the main logistics entity for the Department of Defense, we have worldwide storage and distribution assets in partnership with U.S. Transportation Command that enable us to meet demands and also widen the government's visibility of parts," Rick Teal, program manager for DLA's F-35 Supply Chain Integration Program, said.
DLA is entering its third year as the product support provider for North American Regional Warehousing, in which it stores F-35 retail parts at six DLA Distribution warehouses located at Air Force and Navy industrial sites. Two DLA Distribution centers also support global wholesale demands for the F-35 jet and propulsion systems by storing parts in support of the F-35 Global Spares Pool. The GSP replenishes supplies for over 860 F-35s fielded to 16 countries — 8 allied partner nations and 8 foreign military sales customers.
F-35 sustainment follows a contractor logistics support model that makes commercial industry responsible for ensuring systems are ready for operation when and where the military services need them. If mission readiness and performance outcomes shift, however, military officials need visibility across the supply chain to understand why and to address causes with industry.
"With legacy aircraft, we can see where everything is moving, how it's moving, why it's moving and where the hiccups are," Teal said, adding that the DOD has taken steps to be more involved in sustainment, shifting to what he called an organic management process that makes DLA a key contributor to operational success.
"The first attempt to making the supply chain more organically visible was to stand up DLA Distribution support, and as the fleet grows with different logistics and sustainment concepts evolving, we'll continue to grow too," he said.
The fleet is expected to swell to 1,400-plus aircraft by the end of 2025 at over 26 bases, 10 ships and worldwide industrial sites. DLA and TRANSCOM are working with the F-35 Joint Program Office and the Lightning Sustainment Center, a DOD-led team that includes international partners and industry, to outline near-term warehousing and transportation requirements.
DLA is also in the early planning stages with the F-35 JPO and services to determine how to best transfer sustainment management activities from the contractor to the Air Force and Navy as specified in Section 142 of the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act.
"At this juncture the planning is immature, and even though it shifts sustainment responsibilities from the prime contractors to the services, changes will continue to leverage organic government facilities, capabilities and systems in addition to industrial capabilities — just like our support for other weapons systems," Teal said.
The group will go through a provisioning process to determine what parts of the aircraft will be fixed in-house or commercially and what supplies need to be stocked so DLA can catalog the items, create National Stock Numbers and maintain that information in government systems.
"Instead of cataloging major systems end to end, DLA catalogs primarily those parts that are going to be going through the supply chain continuously, things that we know we're going to buy on a recurring basis because our customers have a steady need for them," Teal continued.
Although cataloging can take years to complete, it's expected to result in easy access to a range of supply chain data because it's stored in government systems rather than industry's, he said. That enables leadership to better measure performance metrics and take corrective measures on distinct supply chain issues.
DLA is already sending F-35 components to customers deployed in support of U.S., joint and international missions, but better supply chain visibility will improve that support especially in contested environments, Teal added.
DLA is continuing to build upon current support as adjustments in F-35 sustainment structure are planned, implemented and tested. DLA Distribution and TRANSCOM recently finished the second phase of test shipments to partner nations in which TRANSCOM assets — a blend of organic airlift and contracted commercial sources like FedEx and UPS — tested importing and exporting of F-35 supplies including hazardous material to the two partner nations.
Tapping into TRANSCOM shipping capabilities strengthens distribution efforts since the command has well-established routes and modes of transport and allows in-transit visibility, Teal said. And that's likely to continue as the Air Force and Navy assume sustainment responsibility, he added.
DLA Disposition Services is also accepting F-35 assets for demilitarization and disposal from U.S. and international customers, a mission that's also expected to build as more systems are fielded, more jets fly and repair cycles increase.