Stealth Fighter Jet Grounded Globally After First-Ever Crash

The news will make it harder for the Pentagon to improve flight availability of key tactical aircraft.

A Royal Australian Air Force airman walks on the wing of an F-35A Lightning II at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona on Aug. 6. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jensen Stidham)
A Royal Australian Air Force airman walks on the wing of an F-35A Lightning II at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona on Aug. 6. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jensen Stidham)

The world’s most expensive fighter jet, the F-35, has been grounded around the world just weeks after its first successful combat sortie, as investigators try to figure out what caused a crash of the plane during a training mission last month.

The three U.S. armed services and international militaries flying the single-engine F-35 all made the decision Thursday to temporarily halt flights while investigators conduct a fleetwide inspection for a faulty part—a fuel tube within the engine—according to Joe Dellavedova, a spokesman for the F-35 Joint Program Office. The roughly $100 million F-35 is built by Lockheed Martin; Pratt & Whitney supplies the engine.

More than 320 F-35s around the world must now undergo the inspections, according to a source familiar with the program. The U.S. Marine Corps, Air Force, and Navy have hundreds of F-35s, both flying in the continental United States and deployed abroad, while the United Kingdom, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, Australia, Norway, Israel, Japan, and South Korea have smaller fleets. A Marine Corps F-35 operating from the USS Essex amphibious assault ship recently struck a Taliban target in Afghanistan, the first successful U.S. combat sortie for the jet.

For the U.S. Defense Department, the timing could not be worse. The news comes days after reports surfaced that Defense Secretary James Mattis ordered the Air Force and Navy to significantly improve “mission capable rates,” or readiness, of the F-35 and three other tactical aircraft fleets—referring to the percentage of time the aircraft are available to fly versus being down for maintenance.

Even before the F-35 grounding, experts speculated that Mattis’s goal of reaching 80 percent readiness for these aircraft—the F-35, F-22, F-16, and F/A-18—was a pipe dream. Mission capable rates currently hover between 49 and 71 percent, according to Defense News, which first reported the order.

For the F-35, it’s not clear yet how many jets will be grounded for the long term. If the faulty part is found, it will be removed and replaced. If it is found that good fuel tubes are already installed, then those aircraft will be returned to flight status. Inspections are expected to be completed within the next 24 to 48 hours, Dellavedova said.

The Italian Air Force has already completed its inspections and, as it did not find the faulty part, is back to normal flight operations, according to two sources.

The inspection was prompted by initial data from the investigation into the crash of a Marine Corps F-35B from a training squadron at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort in South Carolina. The pilot ejected safely from the single-seat jet, but the aircraft was completely destroyed.

“The primary goal following any mishap is the prevention of future incidents. We will take every measure to ensure safe operations while we deliver, sustain, and modernize the F-35 for the warfighter and our defense partners,” Dellavedova said.

“We are actively partnering with the Pentagon’s F-35 Joint Program Office, our global customers, and Pratt & Whitney to support the resolution of this issue and limit disruption to the fleet,” Lockheed spokesman Michael Friedman said.

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman