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  • By Mar-Vic Cagurangan

GAO: F35 Strike Fighter facing challenges in Pacific region

Amid China’s announcement that its new missile called the "Guam killer" is now in service, the U.S. Government Accountability Office has released a report noting some operational impediments being faced in the Pacific by the U.S. Marine Corps’ F-35 Joint Strike Fighter based in Iwakuni, Japan.

“While the Marine Corps recognizes the advanced warfighting capabilities the F-35 will bring to the Pacific, it is facing challenges operating in the area,” GAO said, releasing portions of its classified report in March.

One of the findings cited by GAO pointed to the Department of Defense’s failure to communicate with the Navy and the Air Force the F35 service’s operational challenges.

“While the Marine Corps records F-35 operational lessons learned on its own, service-specific website, these lessons are not currently shared or made available across the F-35 program,” GAO said.

“Instead, Marine Corps officials stated that they currently rely on personal relationships to share lessons learned with other services, through methods such as phone calls to colleagues in the Air Force or the Navy.”

Given that the F-35 program plans to rapidly expand in the Pacific region over the next few years, GAO noted that “now is the time for DOD to make sure that lessons learned are communicated effectively across all services.”

The Department of Defense is increasing focus on the Pacific “where potential adversaries including China and North Korea have made provocations.” The GAO report was released prior to the historic summit in the Korean peninsula, where leaders Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in agreed to work toward peace and to formally end to the 68-year conflict. Kim Jong-un, has pledged to shutter a nuclear test site in May as he prepares to meet President Trump sometime this month.

China, however, is not about to give up its nuclear power. Last week, China’s Defense Ministry spokesperson Wu Qian said the DF-26 intermediate range ballistic missile is now in service and could carry conventional and nuclear warheads to attack targets at land or sea. It has a range of up to 4,000 kilometers, or 2,500 miles, and could hit important U.S. installations on Guam, or other military bases in the region.

DOD expects to use the F-35’s air combat capabilities, along with a basing strategy known as distributed operations—where, for example, aircraft disperse into smaller detachments to outmaneuver the enemy—to counter any regional threats.

GAO, however, pointed out that “it is uncertain how long the F-35 can effectively operate if (Autonomic Logistics Information System) becomes disconnected from the aircraft.”

According to the contractor Lockheed Martin’s website, “ALIS serves as “the information infrastructure for the F-35, transmitting aircraft health and maintenance action information to the appropriate users on a globally-distributed network to technicians worldwide.”

Without a communications mechanism, GAO said, the services are at risk of not having access to key information that could affect their movements, exercises, operations, and sustainment of the aircraft in the Pacific and in other areas where they operate.

GAO advised the F-35 program executive officer to test the F-35 disconnected from its ALIS “for extended periods of time in a variety of scenarios to assess the risks related to operating and sustaining the aircraft and determine how to mitigate any identified risks.”

GAO also found that the Marine Corps had encountered several challenges with the F-35’s supply chain since beginning flight operations in January 2017 when the aircraft landed in Iwakuni.

Full details about the identified risks, however, and other findings remained classified.

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