The Pentagon waited until the late hours on the eve of the July 4th holiday to announce the F-35 is officially grounded putting in jeopardy the Joint Strike Fighter’s first ever international flight at the Farnborough Air Show outside London later this month.
The announcement follows a June 23rd F-35 fire at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. The pilot safely exited the jet fighter before takeoff but engineers and scientists with the military and Lockheed Martin, the main contractor building the F-35, have yet to figure out what caused it.
“The root cause of the incident remains under investigation,” Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, said in a statement. “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.”
Pentagon officials were ready to unveil the F-35 in its first ever international performance as the headline aircraft at the Farnborough Airshow that runs July 14–20. It’s hard to see how the aircraft will make it now that it is grounded exactly one week prior to the show’s start.
U.S. officials had hoped to drum up international support for the F-35 at the show, but the grounding will lead to only more questions from allied military leaders. Those same leaders have already questioned whether the Joint Strike Fighter, which has been plagued with cost overruns and test delays, is worth the massive investment.
The U.S. needs international support for the F-35 to cut down on its cost. Otherwise, the most expensive defense acquistion program in U.S. history only gets pricier and likely cuts down on the number of aircraft the U.S. can afford at a time when military budgets are already shrinking.
The Joint Strike Fighter has been protected within the recent budget cuts even as the services cut down their ranks, but it will get harder for Pentagon leaders to do so if the price goes up.
The engineers and scientists investigating the plan are under intense pressure to figure out what caused that fire or F-35 program officials will have more than disappointed air show attendees — the U.S. will once again have to explain away another black mark for the program as a whole.