The global fleet of F-35 stealth fighters was grounded on Thursday, including Israel’s, as a result of the first ever crash of the costliest plane in history.
A Marine Corps F-35B was completely destroyed in the crash, during training in South Carolina on September 28. The pilot safely ejected.
According to Joe DellaVedova, a spokesman for the F-35 program in the US Department of Defense, the United States and its international partners — including Britain and Israel — have temporarily suspended F-35 flight operations for a fleet-wide inspection of a fuel tube within the engine on all F-35 aircraft.
The Israeli military would not immediately confirm that its fleet of 12 F-35 fighter jets had been grounded.
“The action to perform the inspection is driven from initial data from the ongoing investigation of the F-35B that crashed in the vicinity of Beaufort, South Carolina,” DellaVedova said in a statement.
He added that suspect fuel tubes would be removed and replaced. Where tubes are found to be good, those planes would be returned to operational status.
Inspections were expected to be completed within the next 24 to 48 hours.
Launched in the early 1990s, the F-35 program is considered the most expensive weapons system in US history, with an estimated cost of some $400 billion and a goal to produce 2,500 aircraft in the coming years.
Israel began receiving the fifth-generation stealth fighter from the United States in December 2016. The aircraft were declared operational approximately a year later.
Earlier this year, the head of the air force revealed that Israel had used the fighter jets operationally, which the IDF said made it the first military do so.
Israel has, for now, agreed to purchase a total of 50 F-35 fighters, which are scheduled to be delivered in installments of twos and threes by 2024.
The jet has been lauded as a “game-changer” by the Israeli military, not only for its offensive and stealth capabilities, but for its ability to connect its systems with other aircraft and form an information-sharing network.
Detractors, however, balked at the high price tag for the aircraft: approximately $100 million apiece. (The manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, says the cost is expected to go down as more countries purchase the F-35.)
The Israeli military has reportedly decided to step up its use of the fighter in light of Russia’s decision to equip the Syrian army with the powerful S-300 air defense system last month, after Syria shot down a Russian spy plane during an Israeli airstrike.
On May 22, IAF commander Amikam Norkin revealed that the F-35 conducted airstrikes on at least two occasions.
“The Israeli Air Force has twice carried out strikes with the F-35, on two different fronts,” Norkin told a conference of air force chiefs visiting Israel from around the world.
“I think that we are the first to attack with an F-35 in the Middle East — I’m not sure about other areas,” he said.
The Israeli military later went further, saying that it was the first operational use of the fighter jet in the world, not only in the Middle East.
The air force chief did not specify when those two attacks took place, but said the F-35 did not carry out strikes during Israel’s massive bombardment of Iranian targets in Syria on May 10.