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A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report has cast a shadow over the combat readiness of the F-35 fighter jet program. The report, released in September 2023, reveals a significant gap between the advertised capabilities and the reality on the ground.

The crux of the issue lies in the definition of “mission capable” used by the Department of Defense (DoD). While the public might interpret it as combat-ready, the reality is far less impressive. According to the DoD definition, a mission-capable F-35 can simply fly and perform at least one mission. This mission could be training, testing, or something entirely non-combat related.

The report delves deeper into a more relevant metric: “full mission capable.” This designation implies the F-35 can execute all its intended tasks, including combat missions. Here, the numbers are particularly concerning. The overall F-35 fleet reportedly falls well short of program targets, with a full mission capable rate hovering around 30%. The situation is even worse for the Marine Corps’ F-35B variant, with a mere 15.5% in March 2023.

The report highlights ongoing issues with the F-35 program, including unreliable engines and feature creep. Feature creep refers to the addition of new functionalities during development, often leading to complications and delays. These factors further hinder achieving a robust full mission capable rate.

Even when designated as mission capable for close air support, the F-35’s design and capabilities may not translate to real-world effectiveness. Experts argue that the F-35’s characteristics are not well-suited for this critical role.

The GAO report raises serious questions about the F-35 program’s ability to deliver on its promises. The high cost, combined with the low full mission capable rates and potential limitations in specific combat scenarios, necessitates a thorough reevaluation of the program’s effectiveness.