Airmen’s favorite F-35 stealth fighter jets are set to be grounded after an investigation showed there was illegally procured Chinese alloy in the component.

The Pentagon halted Lockheed Martin Corp’s new deliveries of the upgraded F-35 after they discovered the alloy used in the magnet for pumps was made in China. It is not confirmed whether this is affected by the current state of US-China relations, but the Defence Department Spokesman Russell Goemaere said they are checking if the alloy meets procurement regulations.

The F-35 programme office “temporarily paused the acceptance of new F-35 aircraft to ensure the F-35 programme’s compliance…pertaining to specialty metals,” Goemaere’s email notes.

However, since this material was only added in the new version of the F-35, the previous deliveries are not affected by the said compliance check. Furthermore, Goemaere added that the F-35s that were already delivered did not have magnets that transmit “information or harm the integrity of the aircraft and there are no performance, quality, safety or security risks associated with this issue.”

Lockheed Martin also released a statement explaining the issue raised by the Department of Defense (DoD). They noted that the supplier they worked with, Honeywell International Inc (HON.O) is also working on fixing the issue, so they are still part of the conversation when it comes to potentially replacing these parts. Lockheed Martin added that Honeywell “remains committed to supplying high-quality products that meet or exceed all customer contract requirements.”

F-35 Lightning
The new Department of Defense aircraft, the F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter, taxis across the 33rd Fighter Wing flightline at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. (Source: Defense Visual Information Distribution Service/getarchive)

“…the issue is related to a magnet on the F-35 Turbomachine manufactured by Honeywell that includes cobalt and samarium alloy.”

Curious Timing

The timing for halting the acceptance of these deliveries came at a very interesting period. It was just last month when the US Air Force sent a press release boasting about the new upgrades and modernization of the F-135 engine.

At that time, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said he had a tour of the repair facility where he observed all of the existing procedures in action.

Then, back in July, the Air Force grounded most of its F-35s because of a serious seat ejection problem. In a different inspection, it was found out that the F-35s had an anomaly around the Seat Cartridge Actuated Device (CAD). Moreover, at the time, Lockheed Martin said they were also in the process of addressing the issue.

So, it was a month ago when the Air Force and the DoD were headstrong in keeping the F-35s on the frontlines. They even awarded Lockheed Martin a “whopping $7.6 billion contract” for another set of F-35s to be used in different departments in the military.

“We are pleased to announce that the Department and Lockheed Martin reached a handshake agreement for the next F-35 lot buy on a basis of 375 aircraft,” said William LaPlante, the Pentagon’s chief weapons buyer.

When this was reported, SOFREP also noted how the acquisition seemed questionable, especially since there were issues with the existing F-35s that are “still” being fixed. To date, we haven’t received any progress report on whether Lt. Gen. Eric T. Fick’s, the F-35 program executive officer, “three-pronged approach” to the repair has been successful or not. Lockheed Martin was also dealing with the backlogs that have yet to be cleared until 2029.

Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II (Source: Robert Sullivan/Flickr)

At the same time, more and more countries are backing out of their F-35 deals. Earlier today, Singapore also announced that they might be choosing a different F-35 variant. Major Zhang Jian Wei, who leads his country’s office in charge of the next-generation fighter project, said they are still on the fence on whether they will be getting the “A” version (which operates on conventional runways) or the “C” version (mainly used on aircraft carriers). Wei did not give a timeline on their evaluation but left Lockheed Martin with a vague note of “will make further decisions when ready.”

And before the current investigation, the Israel Air Force has already grounded their F-35 fleet after defects were found due to a faulty cartridge-actuated device (similar issue as the seat-ejection problem noted above). The cartridge had a missing explosive charge that would help airmen be lifted out of the aircraft safely.

F-35′ Rathole’

This may be a prediction coming to fruition since last year, the Democratic Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee called the F-35s a “rathole” during a convention. Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) noted that the F-35’s stature may be overrated since the aircraft does not work “particularly well.” To add, it is also extremely expensive to produce and maintain. He also highlighted how the US is highly dependent on the monopoly of F-35s in its operations.

“I want to stop throwing money down that particular rathole.”

“What I’m going to try to do is figure out how we can get a mix of fighter attack aircraft that’s the most cost-effective. A big part of that is finding something that doesn’t make us have to rely on the F-35 for the next 35 years,” Smith said.

So, with all of the issues that arose this week, and the result of the investigation showing Lockheed Martin dependent on a Chinese supplier for its newer F-35s, is it time for the US military to find a stealth fighter jet replacement?