WASHINGTON -- A small crack on an engine blade of the controversial F-35 Joint Strike Fighter means the planes will again be grounded, but the defect does not yet appear to have any effect on the future of the aircraft, a Pentagon official said Monday.
Department of Defense spokesman George Little insisted that, at least for now, there is no evidence of a wider problem with the plane.
"This is one part, on one plane that had some kind of defect," he said, but added that with safety of the aircraft paramount, "the logical and prudent thing to do was to ground the aircraft."
Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort is expected to become home to three new active-duty squadrons of the F-35 and two pilot-training squadrons, Navy officials have said. The base is in the midst of a $351.8 million makeover, to take place over the next four to five years, to house the fighter jet that will replace all of the base's F-18 Hornets.
Construction at the base began in September 2011, when Florida contractor Hensel Phelps broke ground on a $70 million hangar and training facility, work that is expected to be completed by August. Also under way is a project to build five vertical-landing pads to accommodate the planes' vertical takeoff and landing capabilities.
The decision to put the F-35 squadrons at the air station and invest in new buildings and other facilities there has been seen as a good sign for the city's economy and as a measure of optimism that the base will not be a target in the next round of base closures.
Despite a 12-year history of cost overruns and technical problems for a program that now is expected to cost almost $400 billion, the latest setback, for the time being at least, is seen as no more than that -- just another setback.
"There is absolutely no backing away from our commitment to the F-35 program," Little said.
Later, he added, "We don't know if this is a problem limited to this particular part of this particular plane, or whether it's a more widespread design issue. We hope, of course, it's a limited issue."
A Defense Department news release noted that "a routine engine inspection revealed a crack on an engine blade" on a jet at Edwards Air Force Base in California. The "engine's turbine module and its associated hardware" are being shipped to the manufacturer, Pratt & Whitney's Engine Facility in Middletown, Conn., for evaluation.
The F-35 has been an easy target of critics during the current debate over how the Department of Defense can best deal with $48 billion in impending spending cuts, known as the sequester. Short of an agreement between Congress and the White House, the cuts will start to take effect Friday.
Jacob Stokes, a researcher and expert on military spending at the Center for a New American Security, said that he could not see this development changing the course of the jet, but said, "If you weren't already concerned about the F-35, you weren't paying attention."
While an official military website calls the F-35 "the world's foremost stealthy, supersonic, survivable, lethal, supportable and affordable multi-role fighter," it is also the Pentagon's most expensive weapons program ever.
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