The U.S. Marine Corps has issued a two-day stand-down order, grounding all aviation units both inside and outside the U.S., following the disappearance of one F-35 stealth fighter jet, one of the most advanced aircraft ever built.
On Sept. 17, a pilot from the Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 501 was ejected from the jet for reasons that have yet to be disclosed to the public. The F-35, which costs around $80 million to manufacture, was left flying in autopilot with no one in the cockpit.
A second pilot was traveling alongside the jet, but for unknown reasons did not continue the escort after the other pilot was ejected.
Because the transponder was not on and the stealth fighter was designed to be nearly invisible to radar and other tracking systems, the military was unable to determine the jet’s location, announced the plane was missing, and asked the public to help locate it.
Marine Corps units will not be permitted to fly until they undergo a two-day briefing about safety measures and procedures, officials said in a service-wide e-mail on Sept. 18.
“The pilot ejected safely and was transferred to a local medical center in stable condition. Emergency response teams are still trying to locate the F-35,” the Joint Base Charleston said in a statement. “The public is asked to cooperate with military and civilian authorities as the effort continues.”
Questions soon arose as to why the pilot would eject from a plane that was capable of flying, leading some to hypothesize that it may have fallen victim to a hacking attack from a U.S. adversary.
🚨 #BREAKING: The US Marine Corps has just issued a two-day "stand-down" order for "all aviation units" both "inside and outside" of the U.S. following the disappearance of a F-35 warplane — ABC
Their reason is currently unknown.
Is it possible that our most advanced aircraft… pic.twitter.com/HSYaLJ34v3
— Nick Sortor (@nicksortor) September 18, 2023
Assertions that the F-35 was “hackable” is entirely rooted in reality, as a 2015 top secret briefing by the National Security Agency (NSA) explained that China was able to obtain digital design information for several F-35 systems.
Chinese hackers conducted more than 300,000 cyber attacks against U.S. defense targets, with more than 500 attacks being considered “significant intrusions in [Department of Defense] systems.” More than 1,600 computers were penetrated, while at least 600,000 user accounts were compromised by China’s espionage operations.
A year before, CBS News reported that a major potential problem for the F-35, the Pentagon’s most expensive weapons system ever, was security. “This is a juicy, juicy target for a hacker,” said correspondent David Martin. “If your adversary can hack into all that software that’s running [the mission], then they’ve essentially defeated the plane.”
Details gleaned from the F-35 program were significant enough for China to be able to develop its own copies: the J-20 and FC-31 fighter jets.
Twenty-five hours after the jet went missing, military officials said they found its remains in a debris field roughly two hours northeast of the base.
“Personnel from Joint Base Charleston and Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, in close coordination with local authorities, have located a debris field in Williamsburg County,” Joint Base Charleston said in a statement posted to Facebook.
“JB Charleston is transferring incident command to the USMC this evening, as they begin the recovery process,” officials added. “The mishap is currently under investigation, and we are unable to provide additional details to preserve the integrity of the investigative process.”