“Software may decide who wins the next war,” were words spoken a few years back by former Air Force acquisition executive William Roper as part of various explanations to reporters about the service’s efforts to fast-track certain promising weapons systems, technologies and platforms to war.
The concept, as articulated by Roper, was to mitigate any need for spread-out, incremental software “drops” across lengthy time windows by pursuing a continuous and therefore much faster upgrade process to keep pace with the staggering speed of emerging innovations.
For instance, software alone, when integrated with the necessary hardware, can enable a platform such as an F-35 stealth jet fighter to fire a new set of weapons by adding new interfaces and computer programs. Radar hardware, for example, can be updated with new software to ensure it can better respond to new threat signatures and interceptor weapons such as the Navy’s SM-6 or SM-3 IIA missiles have received software upgrades enabling improved, dual-mode seeker targeting technology.
This technical maturation process is exactly what engineers intend for the F-35 stealth fighter jet, which has continued to be upgraded through incremental software blocks, wherein each one expands the aircraft’s operational envelope. While developers are now integrating Block 4 software upgrades to the F-35 stealth fighter jet, a process enabling the use of the emerging, high-tech Stormbreaker bomb, developers are also moving quickly to refine the technical infrastructures needed to ensure ongoing, more continuous software upgrades.
The pace of innovation when it comes to software, and its impact upon operational functionality, is so fast that rapid insertion is needed to keep pace with the threat. As part of this equation, when it comes to stealth aircraft for example, it may be anticipated that the largest improvements in weapons and platform capability may be accomplished in the realm of software, mission systems and computing, as opposed to needing to architect a new external configuration.
While there may likely be many new breakthroughs when it comes to next-generation stealth engineering, the largest margin of difference with an Air Force sixth-generation stealth jet fighter may reside in software innovations able to introduce new sensing, weapons interfacing, countermeasures and targeting systems. This kind of sensibility does inform the Pentagon’s ongoing modernization plan with the F-35 stealth fighter jet, as current plans call for flying the aircraft into the 2070s and beyond.
Previous Block 2B software upgrades, for example, enabled the F-35 stealth fighter jet to provide basic close-air support and fire an AMRAAM (Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile), JDAM or GBU-12 (laser-guided aerial bomb). Block 3F, by extension, increased the weapons delivery capacity of the JSF as well, giving it the ability to drop a Small Diameter Bomb, 500-pound JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munition) and AIM-9X short-range air-to-air missile.
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 Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.