IDF returns F-35s to service after US crash grounded global fleet
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IDF returns F-35s to service after US crash grounded global fleet

Air force completes inspections of planes to ensure they didn’t have fuel line problem that caused malfunction in US Marine Corps jet in South Carolina

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Israel's first two F-35 stealth fighter jets on their maiden flight as part of the Israeli Air Force on December 13, 2016. (Israel Defense Forces)
Israel's first two F-35 stealth fighter jets on their maiden flight as part of the Israeli Air Force on December 13, 2016. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Israeli Air Force returned its fleet of F-35 stealth fighters to full service on Sunday, after grounding it last week in light of the state-of-the-art aircraft’s first-ever crash in the United States, the army said.

On September 28, a US Marine Corps F-35B — a model not used by Israel — crashed in South Carolina, apparently as a result of a defective fuel line in the motor.

In light of the crash — the advanced aircraft’s first — the American, British and Israeli air forces grounded their fleets on Thursday, in order to inspect the planes for the same malfunctioning fuel line.

On Sunday, the IAF announced its maintenance teams had completed the checks and was returning its fleet of 12 F-35 fighter jets to full service.

“The ‘Adir’ aircraft of the Israeli Air Force are going back into routine and operational activities today,” the army said in a statement.

Following the crash outside of Beaufort, South Carolina, F-35 maintenance teams around the world were instructed to inspect the plane’s fuel lines.

Suspect fuel tubes were to be removed and replaced. Where tubes were found to be in working order, those planes were returned to operational status.

The Israeli Air Force stressed at the time that during the inspections, the F-35 fighter jets would be available to conduct missions if necessary.

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.

Lockheed Martin unveils Israel’s first F-35 fighter jet in Fort Worth, Texas, on June 22, 2016. (Lockheed Martin)

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.

An Israeli F-35 stealth fighter jet flying over the Lebanese capital of Beirut, which was apparently leaked to Israel’s Hadashot news. (Screen capture)

“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.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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