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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.

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.

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.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about the lost plane, but we do know that it was part of a training squadron with 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, based out of Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort. At some point during a flight on Sunday afternoon, the pilot ejected with the fighter jet’s autopilot still running. Joint Base Charleston, in the funniest development possible, posted a call for help from the public on Facebook, asking for assistance in tracking down the errant plane like it was a dog that had wandered off from its owner. The base even included a phone number for the public to call with sightings.

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 “its 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.

It wasn’t meant to be like this. Lockheed Martin’s sales pitch for the plane sounds appropriately straight out of the '90s: a fighter jet that comes in multiple extreme flavors, each designed for a different style of combat and equipped with the most advanced stealth technology. The three variants — for the Air Force, Marines, and Navy — have distinct mission usage but have interchangeable parts. Only a fool would turn down investing in what’s basically three planes in one.

That dream hasn’t exactly lived up to reality. Only about 20% of the models’ parts overlap, and the lack of spare parts has been a major factor in the plane’s problems, according to the Government Accountability Office. Likewise, earlier this year, the Congressional Budget Office reported that only between 54 to 58% of F-35 variants in the military’s possession were available in 2022. The numbers are worse for “full mission availability,” which means the plane is both in a squadron’s possession and can fulfill all of its tasked missions. The F-35 A, which the Air Force uses, was just over 40%; the F-35 B and C, which the Marines and Navy deploy respectively, were closer to 20%.

As for the overall trajectory of military spending, unlike the F-35, that’s been going up steadily for years now.

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.

As for the overall trajectory of military spending, unlike the F-35, that’s been going up steadily for years now. The House is preparing to vote on this year’s defense appropriations bill, which will allocate $826 billion for the next fiscal year. With that kind of money getting thrown around, small wonder the idea of spending roughly $7 million “per tail” per year just to keep these things flying seems like chump change.

So, yes, In many, many ways, the F-35 vanishing over South Carolina is hilarious. (And, perhaps, a minor vindication of former President Donald Trump, who many times suggested that the plane is literally impossible to see with the naked eye.) But when you consider what it says about how the people in power chose to spend taxpayer money — well, that makes me want to trigger their ejection seats.