The South Korean Air Force has determined that repairing the damaged F-35 would cost more than buying a new one South Korean F-35A jets flank US Air Force B-1B bombers in a joint drill over the Korean Peninsula in February. © South Korean Defense Ministry via Getty Images
The flagship fifth-generation US fighter jet has met its match in South Korea: a bird. The South Korean Air Force has decided to retire an F-35A that was damaged when it hit an eagle last year, because repairs would cost more than the $85 million cost of buying a new one.
The decision was announced on Friday, when the Air Force revealed that an analysis of the damaged jet showed that repairs would cost at least 140 billion won ($108 million) and would take four years to complete. The plane’s maker, US defense contractor Lockheed Martin, assisted in the review, which found that the bird strike had damaged around 300 components, including the engine, navigation system and airframe.
US officials have touted the F-35 as the world’s most advanced stealth fighter jet and have sold it to more than a dozen allies around the world. The “A” variant is the most common and is designed to take off from conventional runways.
South Korea currently has 40 F-35As, including the jet that was damaged beyond repair, and it has as many as 25 more on order. The Air Force said it will find a way to make use of the retired jet, such as training mechanics.
The jet was flying at an altitude of 330 meters (1,082 feet) when it reportedly struck an eagle over North Chungcheong province, in central South Korea. The bird was sucked into the plane’s air intake, damaging systems required for navigation and operating landing gear. The pilot made an emergency belly landing at a base in Seosan, about 80km (50 miles) southwest of Seoul.
South Korea’s military has used its F-35As in joint drills with US troops this year, including a show of force carried out hours after North Korea conducted a missile test in March.
The F-35 program has been plagued by cost overruns, malfunctions and delays. Some versions of the jet were temporarily grounded for safety inspections last year, after a crash in Texas. The US F-35 fleet’s mission capable rate – the percentage of time, on average, that an aircraft was ready to perform its assigned task – was 55% as of March 2023, according to the US Government Accountability Office.