The F-35 Fleet Is Grounded Leaving More Question Marks On the Troubled Fighter

After birds, internal engine explosions before takeoff, can take out an F-35.

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Jul 5 2014, 6:20pm
Image. Pixabay

Just weeks after a Canadian defence critic pointed out how the single engine F-35 could be taken out by birds, one of the engines in the troubled Lockheed Martin plane exploded on the runway at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, putting the pilot at risk before takeoff. As a result, the Pentagon issued a directive to ground the entire Lockheed Martin F-35 fleet until further review, with engine maker Pratt & Whitney looking into the issue.

“The root cause of the incident remains under investigation,” said Rear Admiral John Kirby on the F-35 fleet grounding in a Pentagon release. “Additional inspections of F-35 engines have been ordered, and return to flight will be determined based on inspection results and analysis of engineering data. Defense Department leadership supports this prudent approach.” 

The Pentagon has been shrewdly lauding the troubled plane in the face of international criticism of the program for years, putting pressure on foreign governments to purchase the plane and insisting that the 2015 unveiling of the next generation fighter would stay on course. Not to mention, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program is now the most expensive weapons program in American history (already coming in at around $400 billion, without being finished), and it’s still very debatable whether or not it will be a success.

And to add insult to injury, the F-35 was set to finally make its glorious international debut at the Farnborough Air Show in England later this month, something the Pentagon has left on the table. 

“Preparations continue for F-35 participation in international air shows in the United Kingdom, however a final decision will come early next week,” said Rear Admiral Kirby, putting a question mark on the air show debut.

For their part, Lockheed Martin isn’t talking much about the grounding either. When I reached out to them they seemed compliant with the current state of affairs. 

“Lockheed Martin is working closely with the F-35 Joint Program Office and industry partners in supporting the Air Force investigation,” said Alison Orne a communications representative at Lockheed Martin. “Safety is our team's top priority. Any further questions should be directed to the Joint Program Office”

The random explosion in the single engine plane plays perfectly into the hands of what critics have already been saying all along—if the one engine goes down, so too does the pilot. Where most other major fighters come with two engines to ensure pilot safety in case of failure—except for the still active F-16—the latest folly for the F-35 will go a long way in tarnishing its lackluster reputation. Especially when comparable alternatives, like the Eurofighter Typhoon or Rafale fighter, both sport two engines at a much lower cost.

At the moment several of the international signatories to the Join Strike Fighter program haven’t let the latest blip in the F-35 program make them doubt their commitment. Reuters is reporting South Korea and Australia have confirmed the incident has not affected their commitment to buy the Lockheed Martin fighter, with both planning on buying 40 and 58 fighters respectively. 

For its part, Canada, a country that has frozen its acquisition of the plane after political debates over the fighter weakened the Harper government, is still in the mulling process on whether or not they’ll buy the F-35 to replace their aging CF-18 fleet. Though reports in early June suggested the Harper government was pressing forward with their purchase, they've again pressed pause on the decision. But at close to $80 million dollars a pop, you have to hope the single engine F-35 won’t be an issue and whether or not a few more runway fires will make international buyers nervous.