A missing F-35 fighter jet highlights the tragicomedy of military spending

An $80 million stealth fighter jet vanishing for over a day is the kind of thing you’d expect in a farce or satire.

Sep. 18, 2023
By Hayes Brown, MSNBC Opinion Writer/Editor
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The F-35 Lightning II is meant to be the crown jewel of America’s airborne fleet. Each of these next-generation fighter jets has a price tag that runs upward of $80 million, even before factoring in costs like maintenance. According to manufacturer Lockheed Martin, the F-35 “is more than a fighter jet, it’s a powerful force multiplier.” And now one of them has potentially crashed in a field in South Carolina.

That’s about par for the course for the F-35. Since it was first pitched in the early 1990s, a host of catastrophes, setbacks and cost overruns have made the F-35 the object of mass ridicule outside the Pentagon. For all its flaws, and despite it being the most expensive weapons system ever developed, there’s no danger that the program will be scrapped anytime soon. And honestly, that makes the F-35 the greatest tangible metaphor for U.S. military spending ever to exist.

What took so long to find the plane? Well, that’s a great question that unfortunately can’t be answered easily right now. For one, the thing is designed to not show up easily on radar, though that may be less important if it’s currently a smoldering heap on the ground. There’s also been reporting that the plane’s transponder wasn’t properly working, something that NBC News hasn’t been able to confirm.

What was the “mishap” that caused the pilot to eject? No clue, but there’s a long list of possibilities. The plane hasn’t exactly been the most reliable in general. The likely crash in the Carolinas makes the ninth total crash since the plane came into operation and has been grounded multiple times for reasons ranging from “can’t deliver oxygen to pilots” to “it’s allergic to its namesake.” Other issues have included one variant having machine guns that can’t shoot straight and the Pentagon needing to cap how long the planes can handle flying at top speed.

Even the most pro-defense industry members of Congress have realized that maybe this plane isn’t actually very good. Rep. Adam Smith, the senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, likened the spending on the F-35 to throwing money down a “rathole.” But that hasn’t dammed the river of cash pouring into the F-35. Earlier this year, the Defense Department signed a $30 billion contract with Lockheed, purchasing another 398 planes for the U.S. and its NATO allies. In a perfect real-world example of the sunk-cost fallacy, “there’s no scenario where we’d scrap it at this point,” Smith said.