It is the second grounding of the F-35 fighter jet in two months and this fact may cause a red alert at Lockheed Martin, although the program counts three restructuring efforts. More importantly there is a great danger for further budget cuts, which may put in danger the F-35 fighter operational effectiveness:
The Pentagon on Friday suspended the flights of all 51 F-35 fighter planes after a routine inspection revealed a crack on a turbine blade in the jet engine of an F-35 test aircraft in California. It was the second grounding of the warplane in two months and marked another setback for the $396 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, the Pentagon‘s biggest weapons program. The program has already been restructured three times in recent years and may face further cutbacks if Congress does not avert budget reductions due to take effect on March 1. The F-35 program office said it was too early to know if this was a fleet-wide issue, but it was suspending all flights until an investigation was completed. A total of 51 F-35 jets were affected, including 17 that are being used for testing and 34 in use for training in Florida and Arizona. It said it was working closely with Pratt & Whitney, the United Technologies Corp unit that builds the engine, and Lockheed Martin Corp, the prime contractor for the radar-evading warplane, to ensure the integrity of the engine and return the F-35 fighter fleet to flight as soon as possible.
It is important to be mentioned that the grounding of the F-35 fighter fleet is a “precautionary measure” as specialists are investigating to discover the possible impact of the engine’s blade crack to the F-35 fighter testing and training fleet:
The US military has suspended all test flights for its F-35 fighter jet over potential engine problems, officials said. Friday’s decision was described as a “precautionary measure” after a crack was discovered on a turbine blade in one F-35 engine at Edwards Air Force Base in California. ”It is too early to know the fleet-wide impact of this finding, however as a precautionary measure, all F-35 flight operations have been suspended until the investigation is complete and the cause of the blade crack is fully understood,” program spokeswoman Kyra Hawn said in a statement. The suspension applies to all 51 jets in the F-35 fighter fleet. ”We have to find out if this is an isolated incident or if it has design implications,” Hawn said. The cracked turbine blade was being shipped to manufacturer Pratt and Whitney’s engine plant in Middletown, Connecticut for evaluation. The Pentagon has high hopes for the radar-evading F-35 fighter, which is supposed to replace most of the combat aircraft fleet of the US air force, navy and Marine Corps by the end of the decade.
Critics to the F-35 fighter program point their criticism to its increasing cost and time delays which contradict Lockheed Martin’s initial estimations:
The Pentagon envisioned the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter as an affordable, state-of-the-art stealth jet serving three military branches and U.S. allies. Instead, the Lockheed Martin Corp. aircraft has been plagued by a costly redesign, bulkhead cracks, too much weight, and delays to essential software that have helped put it seven years behind schedule and 70 percent over its initial cost estimate. At almost $400 billion, it’s the most expensive weapons system in U.S. history. It is also the defense project too big to kill. The F-35 fighter program funnels business to a global network of contractors that includes Northrop Grumman Corp. and Kongsberg Gruppen ASA of Norway. It counts 1,300 suppliers in 45 states supporting 133,000 jobs — and more in nine other countries, according to Lockheed. The F-35 fighter is an example of how large weapons programs can plow ahead amid questions about their strategic necessity and their failure to arrive on time and on budget. “It’s got a lot of political protection,” said Winslow Wheeler, a director at the Project on Government Oversight’s Center for Defense Information in Washington. “In that environment, very, very few members of Congress are willing to say this is an unaffordable dog and we need to get rid of it.”
Finally, it is the cost of innovation and the testing of new technologies which cause setbacks to different aircraft programs. In commercial airplanes industry we have the case of Boeing 787 battery problems. In the 5th generation fighter jets, the production of a stealth aircraft which is to be capable of simultaneously serving the three branches of the U.S. military forces, is in its inception an innovative but practical concept. Military operational practice has proved that many systems were (finally) worth the money and time spent to their development. F-35 fighter is no exception.