WASHINGTON — The F-35 fighter, which represents the Pentagon’s newest air weapon and blockbuster sales potential to allies, is grounded until the worldwide fleet is inspected for faulty fuel tubes.
The order to ground the F-35s comes as a result of preliminary information collected from the Sept. 28 crash of a F-35B near Beaufort, South Carolina. That was the first crash of any of the fighter models.
“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,” Joe Dellavedova, a spokesperson for the F-35 Joint Program Office, said in a statement Thursday. “Inspections are expected to be completed within the next 24 to 48 hours.”
The Air Force has 156 F-35 aircraft, the Marine Corps has 61, and the Navy has 28, the Pentagon said.
The crash came one day after the F-35B staged its first military strike, at an undisclosed target in Afghanistan. The strike occurred 12 years after production of the F-35 began in 2006, which has become the most expensive weapons program in U.S. defense history.
The plane has been grounded several times during testing because of a swath of issues. Earlier in September a Navy F-35C made an emergency landing at the civilian airport in Fresno, California.
It was unclear is the F-35 variants used by other nations, notable Israel and the United Kingdom, were being grounded for inspections. Other nations supporting the F-35 program include Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, Canada, Australia, Denmark and Norway, according to the Pentagon.
According to news reports, Israeli officials said one of their F-35s made the fighter’s international combat debut in May when Israeli pilots conducted an operational strike in Syria.
“The primary goal following any mishap is the prevention of future incidents,” Dellavedova said. “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.”
The grounding comes the same week that a memo written by Defense Secretary James Mattis ordering an increase in the availability rate for front-line combat aircraft was made public.
According to the Sept. 17 memo, first reported by Defense News, Mattis instructed the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness to begin work to increase the mission-capable rate of the inventory of F-35, F-22, F-16 and F/A-18 aircraft to 80 percent. Mattis said he wanted a plan to achieve that goal by October 15, 2019.
“The Department of Defense is working closely with the Departments of the Air Force and Navy to achieve Secretary Mattis’ directive of achieving a minimum of 80% mission capability for Navy and Air Force F-35, F-16, F-22 and F-18 inventories by FY19,” Pentagon spokesperson Lt. Col. Michael Andrews said.
Statistics vary as to the readiness of combat aircraft by service branch and by plane, ranging from below 50 percent to just above 70 percent, according to published reports.