Missing F-35 Mystery Highlights the Sad Hilarity of U.S. Defense Spending and Readiness

missing f35 procurement problems
United States Air Force, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

If you aren’t on X, you might’ve missed that the United States military lost the most expensive weapon system ever built. Not only did they lose it, but they had to resort to crowdsourcing information to try to find said weapon system.

I watched the news diligently last night, looking for updates and coverage of the missing F-35 Lightning II, only to find little to no mention of the ‘zombie’ aircraft. The event birthed some of the best memes on social media and several hilarious inside jokes on veteran forums, however.

Eventually, debris from the aircraft was discovered in a field not far from the base of origin, and it appears no one was injured or killed this time. However, the entire episode begs some serious questions about managing our defense spending and holding our defense industry accountable.

Return to M. Milley if found

This Sunday, a pilot of an F-35 fighter jet ejected from his aircraft for unknown reasons. The plane was missing until last night when its debris was finally found in a field near Joint Base Charleston in South Carolina. 

Leading up to its discovery, Joint Base Charleston felt the need to ask the public for help finding the aircraft, releasing a phone number for citizens to call with information. When I first saw the notice from the base with the phone number, I had to dive pretty deep because I thought it was a hoax or perhaps a headline from the Babylon Bee – alas, it was not.

Many pondered how on Earth the United States military could lose a fighter jet. Questions that came to mind both on social media and in my own head included:

  • Doesn’t this thing have a tracker or transponder on it?
  • What would someone say if they ‘found’ an F-35 when they call the 1 800 number?
  • How long can a fighter jet fly on its own?
  • Did China hack the fighter jet and fly it to Cuba?
  • Did someone else hack the fighter jet and plan to use it as a missile, a la 9/11 style?
  • Did aliens abduct the fighter jet?

That last one is just for fun; however, just like with UFO disclosure, the probability that we will find out the truth behind why the pilot ejected and why the military had such a hard time finding the plane will likely remain a mystery.

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A real lemon

If you aren’t a defense nerd like myself, let me introduce you to the F-35 Lightning. Some versions of this Lockheed Martin brainchild can take off and land vertically and hover in place in addition to having advanced stealth capabilities. 

The stealth aspect provided copious puns, noting that perhaps the fighter jet is too stealthy even for the Pentagon. One F-35 will cost you about $80 million, not including the maintenance and upgrades required. 

The Government Accountability Office estimates the entire F-35 program to cost about $1.7 trillion, which includes the program’s purchasing, operating, and sustainment costs, making the F-35 the single most expensive weapons program ever. It’s also the worst weapons program, in this Airman’s opinion.

By my count, this crash puts the F-35 at eight total crashes since its inception. While it sounds like a cool military toy, it’s been grounded for various issues, including not being able to deliver oxygen to pilots and also being incapable of flying within 25 miles of, wait for it… lightning. 

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That’s right, the F-35 Lightning is just like my kids, scared of thunderstorms. Two years ago, the New York Times called the program a “boondoggle,” and most of DC admits it’s a terrible investment.

However, that hasn’t stopped Congress from pouring more money into the fighters, with Canada, Germany, and Japan also buying F-35s from Lockheed. When you are one of only a few big boys in town, you don’t need to worry about business hurting if you produce a crap product.

It’s not just the plane

The F-35 is terrible, but if you pay closer attention, it’s more than just this particular weapons system having issues. Acting Commandant for the Marine Corps General Eric Smith has directed all Marine Corps aviation units to conduct a two-day “pause in operations” or what we veterans would call “down days.” 

The goal of the two days is to discuss aviation safety matters and best practices, as the following statement from the Marine Corps explains:

“This stand-down is being taken to ensure the service is maintaining operational standardization of combat-ready aircraft with well-prepared pilots and crews.”

This latest crash is the third Class-A aviation mishap in just six weeks. A Class-A mishap involves property damage of at least $2.5 million or loss of life.

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Last month, a F/A-18 Hornet crashed in San Diego, killing the pilot. A few days later, an MV-22B Osprey crashed in Australia, killing three Marines. 

Both incidents are still under investigation, but it begs the question: are our weapon systems all bad, or are our pilots unsafe? It could be a mixture of both, which should keep you up at night. 

Nothing to see here

The United States spends more on defense than the following ten countries combined: China, Russia, India, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Japan, South Korea, and Ukraine. This week, the House of Representatives is trying to pass an $826 billion defense bill.

Those causing speed bumps to this plan are being shamed by neocons and Democrats, claiming they don’t care about the troops or national security. But I would argue they probably care more than any other group in DC.

Let’s take a trip down memory lane and look at the Department of Defense’s recent performance report:

  • The Pentagon failed its fifth consecutive audit, only accounting for 39% of $3.5 trillion in assets
  • Pentagon leaders claimed there was evidence the Afghan government would hold out 
  • General Mark Milley underestimated Ukrainian military, stating they’d fall in 72 hours
  • The DOD “missed” Chinese spy balloons during Trump administration
  • Pentagon discovered $6.2 billion accounting error for Ukraine

But sure, let’s keep making it rain taxpayer dollars on an organization that has become adept at failing.

Joint Base Charleston officials said last night after the debris field was found:

“This mishap is currently under investigation, and we are unable to provide additional details to preserve the integrity of the investigative process.”

I’m sure, let me guess – no real answers will be divulged, but more money will be spent on the F-35 Lightning. This nation’s downfall will be our abdication to wanna-be war heroes and hawks on the Hill. 

In the meantime, the Pentagon should talk to Apple and see if they can get a feature like Find My Plane – it might mitigate future embarrassments. 

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USAF Retired, Bronze Star recipient, outspoken veteran advocate. Hot mess mom to two monsters and wife to equal parts... More about Kathleen J. Anderson

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