Lockheed is working with the Pentagon to repair some of the software glitches and technical challenges with the F-35 stealth fighter jet, despite reporting very high mission readiness rates, successful combat performance and effective technological functioning.
Citing a yet-to-be-released report from the Pentagon’s operational testing office, a Bloomberg news essay writes that the F-35 currently has 871 software and hardware “deficiencies.” Given that the report is not as of yet available, it is not clear what the specific elements of the deficiencies are, or what kinds of impact they may have upon F-35 mission readiness or performance. It is also at this point difficult to have a sense of how critical these may be, as some are likely to fall within the category of routine software and hardware upgrades or maintenance.
“Though we have not seen the DOT&E report, we track all F-35 deficiency reports. Approximately 70% of these items are categorized as low priority or are with the F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO) for resolution. There are currently no CAT 1A (risk to life or limb) and 10 open CAT 1B (mission impacts) deficiency reports. Nine of these have closure resolution plans, with seven already delivered to the government awaiting action. The other is currently being reviewed by the JPO,” Lockheed F-35 spokesman Brett Ashworth told The National Interest in a written statement.
One likely area of focus is clear: software. F-35 development has for years rested in large measure upon incremental software upgrades, iterations or “drops” of new technology intended to massively expand aircraft performance. Each successive software drop has introduced the ability of the F-35 to operate more weapons, improve processing functionality and widen its mission envelope. The Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and Lockheed are now working on what’s called a Block IV software drop, a move intended to even further increase its weapons and payload carrying capacity.
The software upgrade process is also, by design, being accelerated and, to a certain extent, truncated in terms of time. Air Force acquisition executive William Roper has repeatedly explained that software modernization will no longer take place within spread apart, predetermined drop windows often spread apart by a year or more, but rather happen on a more continuous, flowing or “as-ready” kind of basis. This kind of strategy complements the broader software drop trajectory and expedites modernization, security patches, AI-enabled functionality, condition-based maintenance and, perhaps of greatest significance, weapons upgrades. What this dynamic might point to is that, simply, short-term, or less consequential “deficiencies” might emerge more frequently to a certain extent given the pace of software modernization. They are often part of the iterative process of implementing, refining and testing upgrades, which is part of why software enhancements are often refined, tested and solidified prior to actually deploying on missions with the aircraft. Given this kind of technical reality, it might make sense that many of the deficiencies are, as claimed, deemed to be low priority or not at the point of impacting operational effectiveness or mission readiness.
The F-35 has for years successively added software drops, each adding new abilities to the aircraft. Due to some of the more recent software Block drops, the F-35 can fire the AIM-9X “off boresight” and a growing range of other weapons. Now, the Block IV will in the next few years enable the stealth fighter to drop the emerging Small Diameter Bomb II, called Stormbreaker. The weapon, now operational on F-15Es, brings a first-of-its-kind all-weather, tri-mode seeker system designed to achieve weapons guidance through millimeter wave technology, infrared guidance or semi-active laser targeting. Using millimeter wave radar, the SDB II can reach targets traveling through rain, fog, snow, smoke or other potential targeting obscurants. It also brings unprecedented range and two-way data-link technology enabling it to change course in flight and sustain a “track” on a moving target from ranges as far as 40 nautical miles.
An Auto-Ground Collision Avoidance System, engineered to help keep pilots alive by averting a potential ground collision, is also being implemented through the Block IV upgrade. The technology, already installed on F-16 fighters, is reported to have already saved lives. It uses computer algorithms to take over an aircraft’s flight trajectory and change a potential collision course between an aircraft and the ground or nearby terrain such as a mountain.
The technology calculates where the aircraft is and where it would hit the ground based upon the way it is flying at the time, senior Air Force officials told Warrior Maven. If the fighter jet is flying toward a potential collision with the ground, the on-board computer system will override the flight path and pull the aircraft away from the ground.
While many of the details regarding the exact nature of software drops have yet to be determined in many instances, it would seem to be a very safe assumption that future software enhancements will likely build heavily upon rapid advances in AI. This could bring impactful new developments in the areas of threat identification, targeting data transmission and weapons guidance, among other things.
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.