New British Report on F-35 Crash Raises Broad Safety Concerns: Units Poorly Prepared For Fifth Gen. Operations

After the loss of a British Royal Navy F-35B operating in the Mediterranean Sea in November 2021, an investigation into the incident has raised serious questions regarding the safety of the country’s operations using the aircraft. The investigation’s 148 page report concluded that one of the fighter’s air intake blanks, designed to protect its F135 engine from foreign objects, became stuck in an air intake which reduced engine power by at least 17 percent as the fighter began to take off. This resulted in a crash into the sea. The inquiry highlighted multiple deficiencies regarding how the F-35 was operated and recommended 46 changes be made. Personnel security, equipment and resource management were all highlighted. The paper called for a better understanding among commanders of “safety and security requirements for a fifth-generation platform,” adding that “introduction of special access programs” such as the new stealth fighter had “elevated security thresholds, which places extra strain on safety.” 

The report further raised serious questions regarding whether Britain’s sole frontline F-35 squadron, 617 Squadron, was fully ready to deploy complex stealth aircraft, highlighting that the unit “faced a higher operating tempo than it was prepared for, as the Carrier Strike Group aspired to a baseline flying rate associated with so-called surge operations.” It noted high levels of fatigue among British personnel operating F-35s, with decreased opportunities for fresh air and recreation and a lack of routine access to outside space being among the contributing factors. Personnel notably had not received the necessary levels of training for operations at sea. The report comes as multiple countries have had serious difficulties adapting to F-35 operations, with the aircraft suffering from approximately 800 performance defects as more issues continue to be discovered. A notable recent example was the report from a U.S. Air Force investigation released in June showing that an F-35 destroyed in an accident at Hill Air Force Base in Utah on October 19, 2022 had crashed due to a software issue, which left the pilot unable to abort its landing sequence as it stopped responding and sharply banked to the left. Despite being a first tier partner in the F-35 program Britain has made deep cuts to its orders for the aircraft compared to prior expectations due to budgetary restrictions. This combined with a slow delivery rate has forced the Royal Navy to deploy a U.S. Marine Corps F-35B guest contingent for carrier operations, although the carriers much like the F-35s themselves have often been unable to operate due to their own frequently arising performance deficiencies.