Critics of the F-35 Lightning II have new ammunition to “shoot down” the fifth-generation multirole combat aircraft. Just weeks after the U.S. military’s fleet of F-35s were inspected due to an issue with the aircraft’s ejection seat – and which resulted in the grounding of the aircraft for more than two weeks – the Pentagon announced that it would put on hold any acceptance of new jets.

At issue is material in the aircraft’s engine that was made with “unauthorized material” from China. That material in question was magnet within the Turbomachine pump, and it reportedly includes cobalt and samarium alloy.

Lockheed Martin the prime contractor of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has confirmed the issue with the magnet, while Honeywell International Inc. – the maker of the pump – said in a statement that it “remains committed to supplying high-quality products that meet or exceed all customer contract requirements.”

The F-35 Joint Program Office told the media via a statement that an alternative source for the alloy would be used in the future. Moreover, there are also other Chinese-origin magnets used within the jet, but those have received waivers from the Pentagon in the past.

“We have confirmed that the magnet does not transmit information or harm the integrity of the aircraft and there are no performance, quality, safety, or security risks associated with this issue, and flight operations for the F-35 in-service fleet will continue as normal,” said Pentagon spokesperson Russell Goemaere.

Most Recent Issue for the F-35

It could be said that the F-35 is increasingly becoming a magnet for such small yet still significant issues. In late July, the United States Air Force was forced to temporarily ground their F-35 fleets after an issue was found within the ejection seat due to an issue with the cartridge-actuated device (CAD).

The stand down, which was ordered on July 29, affected fleets across ACC, Air Education and Training Command, U.S. Air Forces in Europe, and Pacific Air Forces. The planes were grounded after a CAD was found to have had an insufficient amount of explosive powder during a routine F-35 inspection at Hill Air Force Base (AFB), Utah in April. The particular cartridge was loose and missing its explosive powder, which would not have allowed the CAD to initiate the necessary actions if the pilot required an ejection from the aircraft. As a result, F-35s around the world were grounded.

The entire fleet was inspected and the stand-down ended in the middle of August. It is unclear if during those inspections the magnet issue was discovered.

It was hardly the first issue with the F-35 program. Despite being touted as an “all-weather” fighter, the Lighting II’s “Achilles heel” is actual lightning. Last summer two F-35Bs, based out of Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan suffered serious damage after being struck by lightning while in flight. Both aircraft were able to land safely, and no Marines were injured in the incident.

However, it caused enough damage to each of the fighter planes that both strikes were classified as a “Class A mishap” – which is a mishap that resulted in either death or permanent disability, or more than $2.5 million in damages.

Foreign Matter

The recent concern involving the magnets could be more political than anything else, especially as so many of today’s consumer electronics – most notably smartphones – utilize materials that come from China.

Thus, it shouldn’t be surprising that the F-35 may incorporate some material from China. In this case, it is within the Turbomachine pump.

“The part involved is a magnet in a lubricant pump in the plane’s engine that incorporated a cobalt and samarium alloy that does not comply with U.S. procurement laws,” explained technology industry analyst Charles King of Pund-IT. “The Pentagon says the magnet can’t transmit information or harm the aircraft and an alternative source for the pump has been found and will be used in future F-35s.”

However, this is just part of a bigger issue.

“It does highlight the potential problems that U.S. firms face in adhering to government policies affected by geopolitical issues that seem very likely to escalate in the future,” King told ClearanceJobs. “It also underscores the importance of finding scarce materials, including rare earth minerals closer to home.”

Change of Course

What is also notable about the Pentagon’s decision not to accept any F-35s that contain Chinese materials is that during the Cold War, the U.S. military went to great lengths to obtain some rare metals from behind the Iron Curtain for another advanced plane.

That was the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, the unarmed but super-fast reconnaissance aircraft that was widely employed over Vietnam and North Korea in the late 1960s. Developed at Lockheed’s super secret “Skunk Works” facility in California, the aircraft required a vast amount of titanium.

Though commonly used today in consumer products including golf clubs, tennis rackets and mountain bike frames, in the 1960s it was especially rare, and the United States didn’t have any major sources of metal, nor did any U.S. allies. As a result, the titanium used in the aircraft ended up being sourced from the same nation the aircraft was designed to spy on – namely the Soviet Union! The raw materials were bought from third-world countries using fake companies set up by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

“The airplane is 92% titanium inside and out. Back when they were building the airplane the United States didn’t have the ore supplies – an ore called rutile ore. It’s a very sandy soil and it’s only found in very few parts of the world. The major supplier of the ore was the USSR. Working through Third World countries and bogus operations, they were able to get the rutile ore shipped to the United States to build the SR-71,” former SR-71 pilot Colonel Rich Graham told the BBC in 2013.

It wasn’t just obtaining the titanium that proved to be an issue, however.

There was also a major concern that the use of cadmium-plated steel tools could weaken the body of the aircraft if mishandled, which meant that even new tools had to be designed and fabricated to be used to work on the aircraft. Those too were made from titanium.

Today, the issue is very different, and it would seem the Pentagon won’t even risk a small magnet that could be stamped “made in China.”

 

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Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who covers business technology and cyber security. He currently lives in Michigan and can be reached at petersuciu@gmail.com. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.

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