The Pentagon said in a statement Thursday that the US military and its global partners, which have also purchased F-35 fighter jets from contractor Lockheed Martin, would be suspending flight operations to inspect the fuel tubes out of caution.
The F-35 stealth jet has been called the most expensive weapons system in history, and its development was beset by multiple delays before it was deemed combat ready.
Although the Marine Corps is the first US service to fly its joint strike fighters in combat, the aircraft has been used by the Israeli air force to strike targets. "Inspections are expected to be completed within the next 24 to 48 hours", Joe DellaVedova, a spokesman for the F-35 program, said in a statement to Fox News. In May, Israeli officials confirmed that the country's F-35 "Adir" had conducted two airstrikes somewhere in the Middle East.
The announcement of the grounding comes after a United States Marine Corps F-35B from the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 501, known as the "Warlords", crashed in SC near Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort on September 28.
An F-35B short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) variant belonging to Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 501 (VMFAT-501) crashed on 28 September near Beaufort, South Carolina, destroying the aircraft.
The U.S. military has grounded its entire fleet of F-35s in the wake of one of the planes crashing in SC two weeks ago.
It was not immediately clear how many aircraft were affected.
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"If suspect fuel tubes are installed, the part will be removed and replaced", according to the Joint Program Office statement. If known properly functioning fuel tubes are already installed, those aircraft would be returned to flight status.
"We will take every measure to ensure safe operations while we deliver, sustain and modernize the F-35 for the warfighter and our defense partners", DellaVedova said. The Marine pilot safely ejected before the crash. John Pendleton, an official for the federal watchdog agency Government Accountability Office, said there hasn't been enough focus within the Air Force on sustaining the F-35, instead of focusing on production.
The Air Force has 156, the Marine Corps has 61 and the Navy has 28.
According to the Pentagon, the decision to temporarily suspend operations for the fleet results from initial data that investigators gathered in their probe of last month's crash.
"F-35 flight trials from the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth are continuing and the program remains on schedule to provide our armed forces with a game-changing capability".
However, the inspections are looking at a certain kind of fuel tube that is estimated to be in about half the F-35 fleet, US officials told The Washington Post.
This story is developing and will be updated.