Already hit by soaring costs, delays and second thoughts by potential customers, Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) ran into more problems last week when a crack was discovered during a routine inspection, prompting the grounding of all aircraft.
The more than half-inch crack on the low-pressure turbine blade of a conventional takeoff and landing F-35A was discovered on February 19th during a routine inspection at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Under strict protocol, ground inspections are held after every 50 hours of engine service. After these findings were corroborated by a different test, all 51 F-35s currently in service in the U.S. fleet were grounded as a precautionary measure, and all further tests and training flights were halted for the three variants of the radar-evasive aircraft. Soon afterwards, the British Ministry of Defense also announced its own suspension of all test flights.
The entire F135 engine, meanwhile, has been shipped to manufacturer Pratt & Whitney in Middletown, Connecticut, for examinations
Matthew Bates, a spokesman for Pratt & Whitney, told Defense News that the engine had 700 total engine operating hours, of which 409 accrued in flight.
Unfazed by this latest crisis in the multiyear, $396 billion program, Lieutenant General Christopher Bogdan, the director of the F-35 program at the U.S. Department of Defense, said on February 25th the aircraft could be back in the air “in the next week or two."
Although the verdict won’t be known until the end of this week at the earliest, possible causes include a foreign object hitting the turbine or basic manufacturing defects. A more devastating, albeit less likely, scenario would involve high-duty cycle fatigue cracking, which can lead to complete engine failure within as little as 90 minutes.
Pratt & Whitney also remains optimistic despite the setback — the second engine-related grounding in 2013 — saying that such discoveries during the testing phase of a program were “part of the process.” The first engine-related grounding involved the F-35B jump-jet variant after a test flight at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida on January 16th was aborted because of a fueldraulic system failure. After identifying the source of the problem — an improperly crimped fueldraulic line — the Pentagon decided to resume F-35B operations, a decision that was made nine days before last week’s discovery.
With the program only 35-40 percent complete, it wouldn’t be surprising if the most expensive defense program in U.S. history experienced other setbacks in future. Once completed, the Pentagon intends to purchase a total of 2,443 of the three F-35 variants for the U.S. Navy, Air Force and Marines, though it may be forced to lower orders if “sequestration” goes through.
Several hundred JSFs are also expected to be sold to international clients. Canada, Turkey and Italy have delayed their decision or are reviewing plans to purchase the aircraft. However, Bogdan maintains there is no indication that any foreign partner is considering pulling out of the program.
Given that the JSF program has already proved so costly, killing the program is probably not a viable option. As such, it is better that all the problems be identified now, while the aircraft is still under development, than after mass production or deployment have begun. A positive offshoot of the bad publicity that has surrounded the project over the years is that it is now under tremendous scrutiny by the public, media and governments, something that cannot be said of eventual competitors such as China’s J-20.