Can the U.S. Military Protect Its F-35 Stealth Fighters From Being Hacked?

Cyber Warfare
April 8, 2021 Topic: F-35 Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Cyber WarfareHackingF-35AmericaCyber SecurityMilitary

Can the U.S. Military Protect Its F-35 Stealth Fighters From Being Hacked?

Newer technologies and networking have made new warplanes extremely powerful, but at the cost of new cyber vulnerabilities.

Many refer to the F-35 stealth jet fighter as a “flying computer,” because its sensors are much more networked and enabled by advanced artificial intelligence-capable algorithms and weapons systems. All of these technological advances speed up target acquisition and a pilot’s ability to respond in combat. In fact, many of the military’s navigational and targeting guidance systems, including multi-node networking, are all brought to fruition by various levels of computing.

While all of this is naturally bringing unparalleled and potentially breakthrough systems to war in ways that may not have even been anticipated, added computer networking can also introduce new vulnerabilities. What if an F-35’s computer was somehow “hacked,” derailed, denied service or simply fed wrong information? Pilots could be fed incorrect targets or given erroneous navigational detail. Also of great concern, what if the plane’s weapons targeting were compromised as well?

Extending this concept specifically, what if a cyber intruder were somehow able to penetrate an F-35’s Mission Data Files and send pilots incorrect images such that a friendly aircraft looked like a hostile one?

Alongside operating its much-discussed computer enabled “sensor fusion” and targeting systems, the F-35 is also heavily reliant upon computer automation in its Autonomic Logistics Information System, or ALIS—a logistics and sustainment computer which, among other things, assesses health and maintenance of avionics, engine systems and other aircraft functions. The idea is to replace the necessity of manual checks by engineering computers able to perform more systematic functions on their own. ALIS has, like some other F-35 systems, encountered technical challenges over the years. 

Throughout all weapons systems generally, including the F-35, the advantages and challenges of increased computer reliability could be described as a dual-pronged phenomenon. One could even call it a double edge sword in a certain respect, as it can bring crucial, highly sought after advantages in warfare, offset if not complicated by increased susceptibility to cyberattack. Greater networking of combat nodes mean an intruder could exact a large impact upon multiple systems by merely penetrating or compromising one platform, node or point of entry.

Another system, called Operational Data Integrated Network (ODIN), was developed as a follow-on or improvement upgrade to the F-35s well known Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS). ODIN is slated to be fully operational by 2022, a Lockheed statement said. 

This kind of high-speed, diagnostic computer system performs a number of critical functions. One of those is condition-based maintenance wherein onboard sensors and computers monitor flight systems such as engine rotations or cooling functions. In addition, ODIN will examine the component health of on-board software and hardware throughout the aircraft such as avionics and other electronics. Part of the concept is to anticipate potential failures well before there is any kind of malfunction to both preserve the safety and survivability of the aircraft and also streamline the repair and maintenance process by getting ahead of the curve. Most of all, a diagnostic or predictive computer system of this kind can mitigate the risk of any kind of in-flight malfunction which could of course introduce substantial performance, functionality and even tactical complications and problems. 

The ODIN system, however, is not likely restricted to purely maintenance functions but also plays a vital role in aircraft information processing, management, and transmission. The F-35 is widely regarded as being at the forefront of emerging AI systems, meaning its sensor fusion applications began as mere concepts years ago. Now otherwise disparate pools or streams of information such as targeting, navigational details, threat data, weather conditions, and basic flight trajectory details can all be gathered, analyzed, organized, and presented on a single screen to F-35 pilots.

What this means is that existing networks need to be hardened, but what about new weapons now early in the developmental process? Wouldn’t they need to be specifically tailored to thwart cyberattacks at the earliest possible point in its technical development?

The Air Force thinks the answer to this is yes, which is why they began a new effort in 2017 called CROWS, Cyber Resilience Office of Weapons Systems. The rationale for the office, now underway for several years, has been to hack, cyberattack and seek to intrude upon new weapons systems early in their development process to identify potential vulnerabilities and “bake in” cyber resiliency. Should future weapons be sufficiently hardened against the kinds of advanced cyberattacks anticipated to come from enemies years before deployment, they may be well-positioned to mitigate the risks associated with how current and future operations are increasingly cyber reliant.

CROWS continues to make progress, according to an Air Force report which cites a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report praising the service’s cybersecurity performance record through programs such as CROWS.

The forty-page GAO report, the Air Force writes, emphasizes the importance of building cybersecurity protections early and often throughout a program’s lifecycle. Report authors noted that it is easier, less costly and more effective than attempting to add cybersecurity protections late in the developmental cycle once a system is fielded.

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Image: Reuters.