By Dan De Luce, AFP
WASHINGTON–The U.S. military said Tuesday it will not send F-35 fighter jets to Britain’s Farnborough air show because of safety precautions, in another embarrassing setback for the most expensive program in Pentagon history. U.S. officials saw the prestigious show as a chance to stage the plane’s international debut in front of potential foreign customers, but instead the cancelled appearance raised yet more questions about the troubled project, which is already years behind schedule. “While we’re disappointed that we’re not going to be able to participate in the air show, we remain fully committed to the program itself and look forward to future opportunities to showcase its capabilities to allies and partners,” spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby told a news conference. The Joint Strike Fighter’s appearance had been in doubt after the fleet was grounded following an engine fire last month.
U.S. Navy and Air Force military authorities cleared the planes for flights earlier Tuesday but they imposed several restrictions, including mandatory engine inspections after every three hours in the air, Kirby said. Given the timing of the show — which started on Monday and runs through Sunday — and the restrictions, “this was the most prudent and safe decision,” he said. The required engine inspections represented “a pretty significant limitation in terms of being able to fly them across the Atlantic.” U.S. defense officials took the decision in consultation with their British counterparts, he said. With the cost rising to nearly US$400 billion, the program carries a higher price tag than any previous weapons project. The Joint Strike Fighter has suffered one technical setback after another and the latest problem has turned into a public relations headache, undermining a long-planned coming-out-party at Farnborough. U.S. officials chose the Farnborough air show as a way of showcasing the plane in a country that committed to the project early and has invested heavily in the fighter. Mishap or Deeper Problem? Apart from the United States and Britain, seven countries are taking part in the program: Australia, Canada, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and Turkey.