Air Force Opened Criminal Probe After a Lockheed F-35 Grounding

Air Force and Pentagon investigators opened a criminal probe of Lockheed Martin Corp. in 2016 over faulty coolant line tubing inside F-35 jets after 57 were either temporarily grounded or required production line fixes, according to officials confirming the previously undisclosed inquiry.

The U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas reviewed a criminal “product substitution” case developed by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations and the Pentagon Inspector General’s investigative arm but declined last December to prosecute, Linda Card, an Air Force spokeswoman, said in an email on Thursday.

Lockheed voluntarily agreed to replace the faulty tubing at a cost of $19 million, the inspector general’s office disclosed in its new semi-annual report. “After Lockheed Martin repaid the U.S. Government and all criminal and administrative remedies were exhausted, the case was administratively closed” in June of this year, Card said.

The grounding in September 2016 became international news because it surfaced just seven weeks after the Air Force declared its first F-35 jets combat-ready. Service mechanics discovered “peeling and crumbling” insulation wrapped around lines that carry liquid to cool combat systems and computers.

If not fixed, the crumbling insulation could have lodged in lines connecting the aircraft’s wing and fuselage fuel tanks, causing potential overpressure or underpressure that might cause structural damage to the tanks. Lockheed had certified to the Pentagon that the tubes, produced by a subcontractor, met specifications.

The case was kept open “until the parts were replaced on the affected aircraft and it was determined that the government was not charged for any of the costs associated with the use of the incorrect product,” according to Matthew Montgomery, a spokesman for the Defense Contract Management Agency.

Brett Ashworth, a spokesman for Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed, said the contractor “does extensive background checks on suppliers and those who do not meet their contractual obligations are removed from the program.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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