The F-35 Lightning II fighter has generated a lot of hype and a lot of hate over the past decade. But the next three years will see major changes to the aircraft that will, with any luck, at least mute some of the hate—or otherwise, just add billions more to the cost of the aircraft.
The Tech Refresh 3 program for the F-35 includes an upgrade of the aircraft’s core processor and memory and the replacement of the aircraft’s Panoramic Cockpit Display—the big-screen display that is the user interface for many of the aircraft’s sensors and systems. There are also radar upgrades and some weapons-handling hardware changes in store, but a vast proportion of the upcoming changes will be in software.
Unfortunately, software continues to be the Achilles’ heel of the F-35 program, in more ways than one.
Many of the Tech Refresh 3 planned additions are mission-focused. There’s a host of new software that will improve electronic warfare capabilities, add more safety for the pilot, and allow the fighter to carry a wider range of weapons and additional missiles. There’s also the possibility that Lockheed and the Air Force will move to add support for “Skyborg,” the Air Force’s “attritable” drone wingman project. And the Navy will potentially be adding more capabilities to support the F-35 acting as a spotter for shipboard interceptor missiles targeting enemy aircraft, anti-ship missiles, and possibly ballistic missiles.
There’s also a separate software project that may have even greater day-to-day impact on the F-35’s operations. The F-35’s Automated Logistics Sustainment System, or ALIS, has been a source of frustration for the DOD since its introduction, with hosts of software problems—especially with its “deployable” version, intended to support operations when network connections are slow or nonexistent. ALIS is at least partially responsible for problems the DOD has experienced with tracking spare parts for the F-35. It has also been tied to the delivery of parts that were not ready to be installed—leading to hundreds of millions of dollars in additional labor costs to the government. The problems were caused by errors in the digital logs for these parts, called Electronic Equipment Logs.
While Lockheed Martin continues to work on fixes to ALIS, the DOD plans to replace the whole thing with a new cloud-based, jointly developed system with a somewhat more ominous name: the Operational Data Integrated Network, or ODIN. And the military is going to be shouldering some of the development effort for ODIN itself, though how the work will be split between DOD and Lockheed isn’t quite clear yet.
But some of the work is bound to fall on an Air Force developer team called Kessel Run (yes, as in the Millennium Falcon) and a project they’ve been working on called Mad Hatter. Over the past few years, using agile programming techniques learned from the tech startup world, the Kessel Run team has tackled some of the edge problems associated with F-35 operations and maintenance, working alongside developers from Lockheed Martin and Pivotal Software.
Agile processes were supposed to magically turn the F-35 program into a more cost-efficient series of feature-ships—a process called Continuous Capability Development and Delivery. This “devops for fighter jets” was supposed to speed up delivery of features to not just DOD, but all of the allied militaries receiving the F-35. But in 2019, the effort was supposed to deliver eight new capabilities—and managed only one, according to a Government Accountability Office report. To be fair, that one was pretty important—it was the Auto Ground-Collision Avoidance System, which is intended to prevent accidents like the one that took the life of a Japanese F-35 pilot last year.
The GAO has also expressed concern over ODIN, citing a lack of clarity about the goals of the redesign of the F-35’s logistical system and concerns over whether DOD can scale the sort of agile development work done by Kessel Run up to the size of a full logistics system. And the DOD hasn’t really figured out how much it has already spent trying to fix ALIS.
Listing image by US Air Force / Wikimedia Commons