Visiting Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., where the engine fire occurred, Hagel said he remains convinced that the “F-35 is the future for our fighter aircraft for our services,” and that problems like the engine fire are to be expected with a new aircraft.
“I know there are issues,” Hagel said. “I don't know of a platform that we've ever had, [that] we've ever designed … and then put into service that didn't go through issues.”
The grounding, announced July 3, stems from a June 23 incident in which an F-35 engine caught fire as the pilot was preparing to take off. The pilot was not injured. An investigation to determine the cause of the fire remains underway.
"We're not going to put the F-35 in the air [and] send it anywhere until we are absolutely convinced and know that it's safe to fly," Hagel told reporters at Eglin. "And that means, as to timing, I'll leave that up to the experts who will come back to us and make a recommendation."
Pentagon acquisition chief Frank Kendall testified before the House Armed Services Committee July 10 that “there’s a growing body of evidence that this may have been an individual situation, not a systemic one, but we don’t know that for certain at this point in time."
The fighter, also known as the Lightning II, is being developed for the U.S. Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy, as well as for the British military and other friendly foreign forces. It is scheduled to become operational starting with the U.S. Marines in 2015, and thousands of F-35s are to be built in the coming years.
So far, the F-35 program has delivered 97 aircraft to test, training and operational units, and those jets have logged more than 16,000 flight hours, according to the Department of Defense. The department is slated to buy 29 aircraft in the current fiscal year, and its fiscal 2015 budget request, pending in Congress, would acquire 34 more jets.