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Washington • The Pentagon said Tuesday that it has completed ground inspections of its fleet of F-35 Lightning II fighters but still had not decided whether the planes were ready for their much-anticipated international debut in two British air shows.
The Marine Corps' version of the fighter jet had been scheduled to fly before prospective international buyers at the Royal International Air Tattoo, which kicks off on Friday, and the week-long Farnborough Air Show, which starts next Monday. But last week, the military ordered a grounding of its full F-35 fleet after an engine caught fire in an Air Force version of the plane, launching a safety investigation and casting the fighter jets' big debut into doubt.
"I think certainly we'd be disappointed if we weren't able to take [the F-35] to Farnborough," Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said in a news conference Tuesday. "That said, safety has got to be priority number one, and it is, and nobody wants to rush these aircraft back into the air before we know exactly what happened."
Kirby said that a decision about the Farnborough show would be made soon, though he declined to give a timeframe. A Department of Defense official said that a decision about the Royal International Air Tattoo would likely be made at the same time and that the military does not have a no-go date for the shows.
The military is now analyzing the data collected during the ground inspections, said the official, who declined to be named, citing Department of Defense policy.
If the jets are pulled from the air shows, it would mark a significant setback for the nearly $400 billion weapons program. The sleek fighter jets, the Pentagon's costliest weapons program ever, have been billed as next-generation aircraft, but a series of delays and a ballooning price tag have fueled criticism of the program.
Utah's Hill Air Force Base conducts maintenance on the F-35 and is scheduled to receive a squadron of 72 of the jets in 2015.