The US military has made a public plea for information as the search steps up for one of its F-35 Lightning II fighter jets, part of the most expensive weapons programme in history, which went missing on 17 September over South Carolina.

Debris from the jet was subsequently found in Williamsburg County on 19 September, some 128km north of Charleston.

The jet reportedly continued its flight path on autopilot after a “mishap” forced the pilot, who remains unnamed, to eject and parachute safely to Charleston on the US eastern coast.

In its public appeal, Joint Base Charleston said it had focused its search “north of JB Charleston, around Lake Moultrie and Lake Marion”, believed to be the jet’s last-known position.

“It seems probable that the rocket motors from the pilot’s ejection seat may have damaged the cockpit’s internal components, potentially destroying the transponder or triggering the autopilot,” says Tristan Sauer, defence analyst at GlobalData. “In such a scenario, the US Department of Defense (DoD) will be desperate to assess the potential risks this poses to future operations, thus creating an additional headache for the already problematic F-35 program and its users worldwide.”

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Salt in DoD wounds

The irony of the US Marine Corps misplacing its prize stealth jet is unlikely to be lost on the Department of Defense (DoD), with the Lockheed Martin-made F35 jet part of the world’s most expensive weapons system in history.

While individual jets are worth $80m, US government estimates put overall costs of the programme at approximately $1.7trn over its 60-year lifespan; $400bn for development and acquisition, and $1.3trn to operate and maintain the jets.

The F-35 is also one of the most ambitious international defence projects. Since its announcement in 2001, eight other nations have invested, including the UK, Israel, Japan and Australia.

Despite this, the programme has been repeatedly stalled by defects. Some have criticised it as a “symbol of America’s dysfunctional military-industrial complex” because of an overall ten-year delay in production and 80% overspend.

It has been a significant contributor to the US’ rising defence spending, which last year, amounted to $740bn, according to GlobalData’s ‘USA Defence Market Size and Trends’ report. The US defence budget is projected to grow at a CAGR of more than 3% from 2023 to 2027.

Nancy Mace, Republican congresswoman for South Carolina, has voiced constant criticism on X (formerly Twitter), blaming the Biden administration for the F-35s disappearance.

The US Marine Corps on 18 September announced a two-day pause in operations at the Charleston branch to give officials a chance to “discuss aviation safety matters and best practices”.

In 2018, the BBC reported that the US military grounded its entire fleet of F-35 jets after one crashed in South Carolina.

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