The Pentagon grounded its very expensive and very problematic F-35 fleet over the weekend due to an apparent engine oil leak. Within a day or so, the US military inspected all 104 of the jets, three of which did not pass the tests. The rest are now back in the air.
This sort of thing happens with unreasonable frequency. By our latest count, this is the seventh time the entire fleet's been grounded, but it could be even more. It's hard to keep track since this happens all the time. This time is extra embarrassing for the military, not to mention the jet manufacturer Lockheed Martin, because the incident affected one of the new F-35B Joint Strike Fighters, a variant scheduled to make its big international debut on July 4. It's also supposed to be the first F-35 jet declared to be combat ready. It does not seem particularly combat ready.
While all combat fighters suffer setbacks, this program seems particularly doomed. Not only is the total price tag hundreds of billions of dollars over budget — it was already over a trillion dollars to begin with — but the expected delivery date of the first jets has been pushed back by over a year. At this point, people aren't just asking if the program's been mismanaged. They're asking whether the F-35 is simply fundamentally flawed.
The naysayers have a good case. It's becoming increasingly clear that the problems in testing are just a sign of what's to come if the jets make it into active combat. Some estimate that the F-35 will cost up to $US40,000 an hour to operate — and that's if everything works like it's supposed to. As our friends at Foxtrot Alpha point out, it's not just the cost that's a problem either.
Whether it's an oil leak, a cracked engine, or busted software, the F-35 is in constant need of attention. But as this season's big unveiling approaches, the program is attracting attention for all the wrong reasons. The United States and other countries considering the F-35 need a next generation fighter jet that's going to shock and awe, not highlight the military's bloated budget and propensity towards disfunction. Inevitably, we need a plane that flies. And the F-35's been doing a lot of not flying. [AFP, WSJ]