Report

America’s Most Expensive Fighter Jet Totaled in First-Ever Crash

The incident could raise questions about pending F-35 sales to the U.K., Australia, and other countries.

U.S. marines load ordnance into an F-35B Lightning II aboard the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Essex in preparation for the F-35B's first combat strike on Sept. 27. (Photo by Cpl. A. J. Van Fredenberg/U.S. Marine Corps via Getty Images)
U.S. marines load ordnance into an F-35B Lightning II aboard the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Essex in preparation for the F-35B's first combat strike on Sept. 27. (Photo by Cpl. A. J. Van Fredenberg/U.S. Marine Corps via Getty Images)

The F-35, the U.S. military’s most expensive fighter jet, crashed for the first time on Friday, just hours after a U.S.-flown F-35 carried out its first-ever combat strike in Afghanistan.

The $100 million-plus plane, a U.S. Marine Corps F-35B capable of short takeoffs and vertical landings from a training squadron at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, in South Carolina, was deemed a total loss, a U.S. official confirmed. The pilot safely ejected from the single-seat aircraft and is currently being evaluated by medical personnel, according to Marine Corps spokesman Capt. Christopher Harrison. There were no civilian injuries.

It has been a week of highs and lows for the latest-generation U.S. stealth fighter, which the Defense Department estimates will cost more than $1 trillion over the fleet’s service life. CNN first reported that an F-35B operating from the USS Essex amphibious assault ship struck a Taliban target in Afghanistan, the first successful U.S. combat sortie for the oft-maligned jet. And the Pentagon announced earlier on Friday that it reached a deal with Lockheed Martin bringing the unit price of an F-35A variant below $90 million for the first time.

But the crash on Friday could raise questions about the viability of Lockheed Martin’s highest-profile aircraft as deliveries are set to ramp up to both U.S. and international customers.

The jet still has not completed its final, critical test period; in fact, operational testing was slated to begin in September, but that event has been postponed until the latest software is delivered.

The United Kingdom plans to acquire 138 of the same kind of F-35 to operate from the decks of its new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers, and it started flight operations with four F-35Bs this summer at Royal Air Force Marham in eastern England. Italy is also buying the F-35B variant for the Italian Navy’s Cavour aircraft carrier. Ten other international partners, including Italy and Australia, are buying the F-35A conventional variant.

The crash marks the second “Class A mishap”—military speak for an incident resulting in $2 million in damages or total loss of the aircraft—for the F-35 and the first time a pilot has ejected. The Marine Corps began using the F-35 operationally in 2015; the Air Force did so with a different variant in 2016. The United States has deployed the F-35 to Europe, to the Pacific, and, most recently, to the Middle East. Several U.S. allies have begun flying their own F-35s, and the Israeli Air Force reportedly used the jet in combat in the Middle East earlier this year.

It’s too soon to say whether F-35s will now be grounded, a move that might indicate a wider problem with the aircraft. Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group, believes it is unlikely at this point in the aircraft’s development that the crash was due to a fundamental design flaw. He thinks it is more likely that a maintenance issue, pilot error, or a manufacturing error is to blame.

Aboulafia does not believe the crash will be a major setback for the program in the United States or abroad.

“Every aircraft program has its tragedies and setbacks,” Aboulafia said. “If anything, the F-35 has had fewer than normal disasters.”

The Marine Corps’ AV-8B Harrier jump jet, the pioneer short-takeoff aircraft that the F-35B replaced, experienced 13 crashes, 12 of them fatal, in the 1970s alone. The jet first began flying in 1967.

The lost plane belonged to Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 501, a training squadron for both U.S. and international F-35B pilots. The pilot was a U.S. instructor, a military official told Foreign Policy.

Correction, Oct. 2, 2018: Australia is buying the F-35A conventional variant. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the Royal Australian Navy was buying the F-35B for its Canberra-class amphibious ships.

Lara Seligman is Foreign Policy's Pentagon correspondent. @laraseligman

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