Stealth aircraft will undergo safety inspections following crash of a US Marine Corps jet
An F-35 fighter jet aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth last month. The UK plans to buy 138 planes as part of a £9.1bn programme. Photograph: PO Arron Hoare/MoD handout/EPA
The Ministry of Defence has grounded its fleet of 16 new F-35 fighter jets for inspections after one of the high-tech aircraft crashed in the US last month.
The UK’s F-35s, which first arrived in the country in June as part of a £9.1bn programme to buy an eventual 138 planes, are being examined to see if they have a faulty fuel tube, following the crash of the US Marine Corps aircraft.
Only one of the 16 jets has so far been cleared to fly again, the MoD said.
The US plane crashed in South Carolina two weeks ago, the first such incident to affect the model. The pilot ejected safely.
An MoD spokesman said: “Safety is our paramount concern, therefore the UK has decided to pause some F-35 flying as a precautionary measure while we consider the findings of an ongoing inquiry.
“F-35 flight trials from the aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, are continuing and the programme remains on schedule to provide our armed forces with a game-changing capability. We will continue to review the situation as further information becomes available.”
The Queen Elizabeth sailed from Portsmouth to Florida in August for an 11-week trial of the fighters, billed as the world’s most advanced combat jet.
Nine of the planes in the UK are based at RAF Marham in Norfolk, which has been updated ahead of their arrival. They will also fly from HMS Queen Elizabeth and the second of the Royal Navy’s two new aircraft carriers, HMS Prince of Wales, currently being built in Scotland. The other seven are involved in joint UK-US trials taking place off Florida.
The F-35, known as the Lightning II, is built by Lockheed-Martin, with involvement from other countries, including the UK.
The project has faced controversy over delays – the first F35s were due to fly with the US military in 2012 but only entered service four years later – and a total programme cost which inflated from $233bn in 2001 to around $379bn.
In December the MoD was reprimanded by the Commons defence committee for failing to provide an estimate of the cost to the UK. The committee called this “wholly unsatisfactory”, adding: “It amounts to an open-ended financial commitment which can be quantified only in retrospect.”
The planes have already seen active service with the US military in Afghanistan, and have been used by Israel to carry out air strikes.
The F-35 is equipped with so-called stealth technology to evade radar, prompting Donald Trump to once describe the planes as “invisible”. In November last year the US president told an audience of US coastguards: “You can’t see it. You literally can’t see it. It’s hard to fight a plane you can’t see.”
Trump said air force officials had told him: “Well, it wins every time because the enemy cannot see it, even if it’s right next to it, it can’t see it.”