PARIS --- Concern is increasing about recent incidents affecting the F-35 program, as the precautionary grounding, initially limited to “A” variants at Eglin Air Force Base, is extended to the other variants at all air bases.
At issue is the secrecy surrounding the circumstances of a June 23 incident in which an F-35A preparing to take off caught fire and was seriously damaged. Concern is reinforced by the repetition of engine incidents – the previous one occurred June 13 – the lack of information, and the Marine Corps’ insistence that it will not deviate from plans to fly two or three F-35Bs at three public events in the United Kingdom in July.
The lack of transparency about this latest incident is seen by some observers as an indication that it is far more serious than initially claimed. This is confirmed by the fact that the suspension of flight operations, initially limited to one variant at a single base, has now been extended to the entire F-35 fleet at all air bases. In fact, there is still no official statement confirming that the latest two incidents even occurred.
Stonewalling by the F-35 enterprise – airframe and engine manufacturers, Joint Program Office, military services - is in stark contrast to Russia’s openness regarding a similar incident regarding its own stealth fighter the Sukhoi T-50.
Whereas four days after the F-35 fire no photographs have been released, and no description of the circumstances of the fire, or of the extent of damage, has been provided, Russia’s Sukhoi needed only a few hours to release a photograph and a short report when one of the T-50 prototypes caught fire on landing June 10 and was substantially damaged.
The lack of credible information about the F-35 fire incident on June 23 is all the more worrying that, over the previous week-end, the entire F-35 fleet was grounded after an aircraft suffered an engine oil leak and declared an in-flight emergency.
Almost two weeks later, there is still no official statement on this incident, and no indication of where the leak occurred or of how large is was. No information has been released about the fate of several aircraft – two or three, depending on the source – in which oil leaks were also found after inspections.
AN ENGLISH SUMMER
Given these repeated engine problems, the Marine Corps’ insistence to exhibit the F-35B VSTOL fighter at three highly publicized events in the United Kingdom is surprising, given the risks involved. The events are the July 4 naming ceremony for the Royal Navy’s latest aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elisabeth; the Royal International Air Tattoo (July 11-13) and the Farnborough Air Show (July 14-30).
These are all high-profile events and if successful would no doubt provide the program with a badly-needed public relations boost, after years of news reports, Parliamentary hearings and audit reports detailing its technical shortfalls and cost overruns.
The UK is the program’s largest foreign partner, and the aircraft’s presence at the ship naming ceremony is especially significant because it is on this occasion that Philip Hammond, the British state secretary for defense, is expected to announce an order for 14 F-35B fighters which will, at some time in the future, operate from HMS Queen Elisabeth.
Hammond is keen to have the aircraft flying at the ceremony to show he is not buying a paper aircraft, and wants to avoid a repetition of events at which other defense ministers posed in front of – or inside – full-scale models when announcing their orders.
It is impossible to judge whether a public relations coup is reason enough to fly unproven single-engined aircraft across the Atlantic and back. One would think the powers that be would not undertake such a risky operation if there was a real, serious issue with the F-35’s engine.
Yet, is there is no real, serious issue, why the information blackout, and why the conflicting statements about the groundings?