US military suspends operations for F-35 fighter jets, citing safety concerns

US military suspends operations for F-35 fighter jets, citing safety concerns
F-35 jets: US military grounds entire fleet
During the Paris Air Show, Lockheed Martins F-35A fighter jets took to the skies, showing off their high-flying maneuvers as the company approaches a landmark $37 billion deal to sell the jets to 11 nations

The U.S. military on Thursday grounded its entire fleet of F-35 stealth fighters after one of the jets crashed during a training mission in South Carolina last month, officials said Thursday.

The decision involves a potentially bad fuel tube and affects more than 250 U.S.-owned jets, as well as nearly 100 that belong to other nations including Britain. About half the F-35s are believed to have the faulty tube, and they include aircraft owned by the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. 

The stand down affects more than 200 jets while an "inspection of a fuel tube" in F-35 engines takes place, according to a Pentagon spokesman.

On Thursday, the Israeli military also said it has grounded its fleet of F-35 warplanes. Israel is among a small number of countries using or developing the next-generation warplane. The Israeli warplanes, purchased from the U.S., are a different model than the American one that crashed. 

“If suspect fuel tubes are installed, the part will be removed and replaced. If known 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,” Joe DellaVedova, a spokesman for the F-35 program, said in a statement to Fox News.

On Sept. 28, a Marine F-35B crashed into an uninhabited marsh island near the Grays Hill community in South Carolina. It marked the first crash of the U.S. militarys newest and most expensive aircraft, CBS News national security correspondent David Martin reported.

The grounding of the entire F-35 fleet is for an "inspection of a fuel tube." (U.S. Marine Corps)

The decision temporarily halted combat operations by Marines, who began conducting airstrikes against Taliban targets in Afghanistan the day before the crash. Officials said they were not able to confirm if the Marine planes were able yet to resume operations. 

In that incident, a 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing F-35B crashed at about 11:45 a.m. into an uninhabited marsh island near the Grays Hill community. The Marine pilot was able to eject before the crash and did not suffer any serious injuries.

The jet was based at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort and on a routine training missing at the time. The Marine version of the jet is capable of short takeoffs and vertical landings, and one flew its first combat mission last month in Afghanistan.

Military plane crash in Beaufort near Joe Allen Drive area. Appears to have crashed on a bluff/island owned by Clarendon Plantations. Not usually many people over there. Praying for the safety of all involved! pic.twitter.com/dM5a8v2lg1

The Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps all have their versions of the F-35, each of which costs about $100 million. Cost overruns and delays have plagued the development of the 5th generation fighter jet.

The F-35 fighter jet conducted a combat airstrike for the first time last month. (U.S. Marine Corps)

The Marine pilot safely ejected before the crash. During the subsequent investigation, certain fuel tubes were identified as a potential problem, largely involving aircraft built before 2015. 

Of the 280 operational F-35s purchased to date by the U.S. and international partners, only about half can fly, Vice Adm. Mat Winter, director of the F-35 Joint Program Office, told reporters in March, according to Military.com.

The F-35 program office said the inspections should be completed in one or two days. Depending on the availability of parts, the fuel tube can be replaced quickly. 

"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.

According to Lt. Col. Mike Andrews, a Pentagon spokesman, some of the fighter jets have been inspected and are flying again. 

A Navy aircraft mishap board is charged with overseeing the investigation, and they will be conducting a fleet-wide inspection of a fuel tube inside the engine of the F-35 aircraft, according to military officials.

Israel said Thursday the testing will take several days, but the planes remain ready for operational action if needed.

“The primary goal following any mishap is the prevention of future incidents,” Joe Dellavedova, the director of public affairs for the F-35 program, said in a statement. “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 that they will remove and replace any fuel tubes they suspect might be problematic. Those planes that dont have the problem will be cleared to fly, he said, and they hope to have the inspections completed within 24 to 48 hours.

This is the only latest turbulence for a long troubled flight program that began in October 2001. A Government Accountability Office report to Congress in June 2018 showed that the fighter grew increasingly expensive and regularly missed its deadlines, forcing the program to completely restructure in 2010 after moving its financial goal posts multiple times.

The office recommended in its June report that the Department of Defense “resolve all critical deficiencies before full-rate production.”

The United States has spent over $320 billion so far to develop and acquire more than 2,400 fighter jets, according to the GAO report.

Dr. Michael Gilmore, the director of Operational Test and Evaluation at the Department of Defense until 2017, also provided a fairly searing depiction of the F-35 program in his FY 2015 Annual Report. He wrote that it would be problematic to make any commitment to a block purchase of the F-35 before November 2021 because of the technical challenges the program faced, but he did not identify fuel tubes as a specific issue.

“Is it prudent to further increase substantially the number of aircraft bought that may need modifications to reach full combat capability and service life?” Gilmore wrote in the report, questioning the decision to commit to a block purchase.

“As the program manager has noted, essentially every aircraft bought to date requires modifications prior to use in combat.”

Gilmore, who left the office in 2017, and his successor, Robert Behler, could not be immediately reached for comment about the decision to ground the F-35 on Thursday.

Dellavedova told NBC News that this latest issue would not impact the Pentagons decision to pursue a bulk purchase of the fighter from Lockheed Martin, noting that they were able to negotiate a 5.4 percent price decrease with the defense contractor to bring it to just under $90 million per aircraft.

“The F-35 is combat proven aircraft,” he argued. “It was just last month the Marine Corps used the F-35 to conduct combat operations in Afghanistan.”


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