Less than two months after declaring that the controversial F-35 Joint Strike Fighter was ready for combat, the Air Force on Friday announced that it was temporarily grounding 15 of the jets after it discovered that insulation was “peeling and crumbling” inside the fuel tanks.
The setback is the latest problem for the $400 billion system, the most expensive in the history of the Pentagon. It comes as the program, which for years faced billions of dollars in cost overruns and significant schedule delays, had begun to make strides. Last year, the Marine Corps had declared its variant ready for combat. And in July, the Air Force gave a similar blessing to its variant.
The F-35 is manufactured by Lockheed Martin.
“While nearing completion, the F-35 is still in development and challenges are to be expected,” Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said in a statement. “The F-35 program has a proven track record of solving issues as they arise and we’re confident we’ll continue to do so.”
She said the Air Force is “working with units to mitigate the impact on operations, training, and readiness.”
Two of the grounded aircraft belong to Norway, the Air Force said. The insulation problem affects a total of 57 aircraft, the Air Force said, 42 of which are still in production. Lockheed Martin and Air Force officials are “developing procedures to resolve or mitigate the issue” before those aircraft become operational, the Air Force said.
In 2014, the Pentagon was forced to temporarily ground the F-35 entire fleet after an engine fire in one of the jets caught fire as the jet was preparing to take off at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, forcing the pilot to abort the flight.