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Marine leader orders safety stand-down of all aircraft after F-35 disappearance

WASHINGTON — All Marine Corps aircraft, inside and outside the U.S., were grounded Monday after a stealth F-35 jet in South Carolina mysteriously disappeared, according to an order issued by Gen. Eric Smith, the acting commandant of the Marines.

Marine aircraft deployed abroad or with imminent, real-world missions can delay the order briefly but are expected to stand down for two days this week, officials said.

The Marines and Joint Base Charleston, an air base in North Charleston, South Carolina, were working Sunday to locate an F-35B Lightning II jet — which carries a price tag of about $80 million — after the pilot safely ejected from the aircraft. He was in stable condition Monday at a medical center, a spokesperson for the air base said.

Two defense officials said Monday that although the jet was on autopilot when the pilot ejected, it would no longer be airborne because it does not have the range or ability to fly for such a long period without being re-fueled.

It had not yet been located Monday.

The decision to stand-down all aircraft also comes after two deadly Marine Corps crashes last month. An F-18 pilot died in a crash during a training flight near San Diego, and three Marines died and more were wounded when an Osprey crashed off the coast of Australia.

Joint Base Charleston said in a statement that it was coordinating its search efforts with the Marines and the Navy. It was also working with the FAA, Civil Air Patrol and local law enforcement across South Carolina, using “both ground and air assets” to aid the search.

The jet belongs to one of the training squadrons in the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, the major East Coast aviation unit of the U.S. Marine Corps. The incident is currently under investigation, the unit said.

“The search-and-recovery efforts for the aircraft are ongoing, and we are thankful to the agencies assisting in this effort,” Captain Joe Leitner, the spokesperson for the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, said. “The mishap is currently under investigation.”

It remains unclear why the Marines and federal authorities have been unable to track the aircraft, which carries some of the most elite technology and software procured by the federal government. That has rankled members of Congress members who have criticized the price tag of the F-35 Lighting II Joint Strike Fighter program. It is the Pentagon’s most expensive weapon system program to date.

Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., likened the program to a financial “rathole” during a virtual event at the Brooking Institution in 2021. He did not respond to a request for comment on Monday.

“What does the F-35 give us?” asked Smith, who was then serving as the chairman of the House Armed Services. “Is there a way to cut our losses? Is there a way to not keep spending so much money for such a low capability? Because the sustainment costs are brutal.”

The Department of Defense expects to spend $1.7 trillion to buy, operate and sustain the aircraft and its systems over its lifetime, according to a Government Accountability Office report published in May. The program’s procurement costs have also increased by $13.4 billion since the last estimate was made in 2019.

Kube and Gains reported from Washington and McCausland from New York City.

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