The military temporarily losing a fighter jet near Charleston, South Carolina, and asking the public to help find it is a plotline in which “Top Gun” (fighter jets) meets “The Hunt for Red October” (country can’t find its weapons system).
But the larger story of the F-35 Lightning II stealth fighter is like tax dollars meet “The Blob” (unstoppable force consumes everything in its path).
How in the heck?
“How in the hell do you lose an F-35?” wondered Rep. Nancy Mace, the South Carolina Republican, in a post on social media Sunday that speaks for everyone who read the headline about the state-of-the-art military plane that went missing earlier in the day after its pilot ejected and parachuted to safety. The debris field of the plane was located approximately two hours northeast of Joint Base Charleston, the Marine Corps and a defense official with knowledge of the search told CNN Monday evening.
“How is there not a tracking device and we’re asking the public to what, find a jet and turn it in?” she continued.
A more general and important question could be asked of the F-35 program writ large: How in the heck can you spend so much money on a plane that doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to?
The most expensive US defense project ever
The exact amount of money for a single aircraft like the one that went missing is somewhere around $100 million.
The entire F-35 program is on track to cost $1.7 trillion over the lifetime of the plane. Trillion. With a “t.”
Ahead of the discovery of its remains, CNN’s Oren Liebermann reported the facts of what was known about the missing aircraft on CNN on Monday:
The pilot ejected safely and was taken to a hospital. Joint Base Charleston posted a social media plea for information from anyone who might have seen the jet or its remains.
The search is focused northwest of Charleston near Lakes Marion and Moultrie. But we’re left with so many questions, he told CNN’s Jim Sciutto.
“Was the transponder working? If not, why wasn’t it working? Why, maybe, had it been switched off? What was the mission it was on? All of this is either under investigation or a question we haven’t gotten an answer to yet.”
In the meantime, Liebermann reported Monday evening that the Marine Corps has ordered a two-day pause in flight operations, during which all the aviation units within the service will review safe flight operations, ground safety, maintenance and flight procedures, and maintaining combat readiness. The F-35 incident marks the third plane crash for the service in six weeks.
When I asked Liebermann by email how to generally explain the F-35 program, he noted it is the most expensive weapons program in US history.
For a country that spends a good portion of its income on its military and is known to have the most advanced fighting force on Earth, that’s saying something.
The F-35 is what’s known as a “stealth” fighter, which means it is supposed to be able to avoid detection by enemies. Maybe a little too stealth.
But if you watch the glossy Lockheed Martin video at F35.com, the jet is also supposed to be able to communicate with rest of the military, “sharing its operational picture with the ground, sea and air assets.” The video shows the jet beaming information to the ground and satellites.
The New York Times’ editorial board used the word “boondoggle” to describe the F-35 program in 2021. But it added that the US is essentially stuck with the program.
Or as CNN’s Zachary Cohen wrote back in 2015, “Is the world’s most expensive weapons program worth it?” Eight years later, the question still applies.
Many US allies – Canada, Germany, Japan and others – also buy F-35s from Lockheed.
One jet to do many different things
The F-35, as developed by Lockheed at the request of the US military, was supposed to be the jack-of-all-jets, with versions to do different jobs for the Air Force, the Navy and the Marines.
The version that went missing over South Carolina – the F-35B – is used by the US Marine Corps and meant to be able to “land vertically like a helicopter and take-off in very short distances,” according to a fact sheet from Lockheed. Another F-35B crashed in 2018, also in South Carolina.
The Project on Government Oversight, a nonpartisan watchdog group, has written extensively on the F-35 and its cost overruns. I asked Dan Grazier, an F-35 expert for POGO, what has gone wrong.
‘Failure at the conceptual level’
It all boils down to “failure at the conceptual level,” he told me in an email.
“The architects of the program attempted to build a single aircraft to meet multiple mission requirements for not just three separate services but also those of multiple countries,” Grazier said, noting the difference between a small and nimble fighter jet and a long-range jet.
“When someone attempts to design a single aircraft to perform all of these roles, they have to make numerous design tradeoffs that generally results in an aircraft that can sort of do it all, but doesn’t do anything particularly well.”
The jet has never reached its full operational capability and already needs updates and tweaks, including a new engine. “Every F-35 built until now is nothing more than a very expensive prototype,” Grazier told me.
“All of them will have to go through an expensive retrograde process in the future when the design is complete to bring them up to something approaching full combat standards.”
I asked a spokesperson for Lockheed Martin if the company is confident the jets perform as they should considering the taxpayer investment.
They provided this statement:
The global F-35 fleet has surpassed more than 721,000 cumulative flight hours and spans 17 nations and three U.S. military services. Since F-35s began flying 17 years ago, there has been one pilot fatality and less than 10 confirmed destroyed aircraft. More than 965 F-35s have been delivered and more than 430,000 sorties completed.
Diana Maurer is director of defense capabilities and management at the Government Accountability Office, the government’s own watchdog that earlier this year described the F-35 program as “more than a decade behind schedule and $183 billion over original cost estimates.”
She said pilots frequently report being impressed by the plane’s capabilities. But they also report not being able to fly it often enough.
Problems getting spare parts, issues with repairs and a reliance on contractors all contribute to the F-35 having a substandard readiness and frequent groundings of the fleet.
“There’s a variety of reasons why they can’t get these aircraft up in the air as often as they would like,” Maurer said. “And that’s really frustrating from a taxpayer perspective for something that already costs hundreds of millions of dollars a year; cost many, many multiple billions already; and will cost nearly $2 trillion over the life cycle of the program.”
Grazier said officials at the Pentagon have acknowledged problems with the F-35 that can be applied to the design process in the future. But this is a program that evolved over successive presidencies and with a rotating cast of characters in charge both in Congress and at the Pentagon.
The system is supposed to have safeguards against extreme cost overruns, but when those warnings were triggered in previous decades, the F-35 program was allowed to barrel forward. And here we are.