Is the F-35’s Computer R2-D2 or HAL?

F-35A_maintainers

(Updates story with quotes from British Ministry of Defense spokeswoman beginning in eighth paragraph.)

A recent “60 Minutes” segment on the Defense Department’s F-35 focused on some of the high-tech features of the future fighter jet.

The Pentagon’s most advanced — and most expensive — acquisition program isn’t just another stealth aircraft with angled lines and sharp contours. It’s a “flying computer,” with 24 million lines of software code and a $500,000-plus helmet-mounted display that lets pilots see through the floor of the cockpit, according to the report.

“The helmet itself is Star Wars,” Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, said in an interview with David Martin, a national security correspondent for CBS News. “It’s what you see in a Star Wars movie.”

The system, which includes the custom-fitted helmet and a computer that receives data from the plane’s radar, cameras and antennae, will allow pilots to see an enemy aircraft at far greater distances than today’s fighters, officials touted on the program.

But like other parts of the plane, it doesn’t always work. When the news team visited the Marine Corps station in Yuma, Ariz., for instance, “a malfunction caused a scheduled flight to be scrubbed,” according to the report. And even when it does work, some pilots reportedly complain of being bombarded with too much information.

“The new … helmets are a hoot,” someone who identified himself as Neil Jones England wrote in a comment on the program’s website. “They made [Royal Air Force] pilots who used them dizzy, due to information overload. The night vision capability is awful, so pilots are flying virtually blind. We have swapped back to the helmet used by pilots who fly the Eurofighter.”

Endre Lunde, a spokesman for the Norwegian Ministry of Defense’s F-35 program office, vigorously disputed this claim, calling it “pure fabrication” and a “false rumor from the web.” In messages on Twitter, he wrote, “Eurofighter helmet has never been flown by anyone with #F35.” Norway is one of several countries buying the aircraft.

Sahar Rehman, a spokeswoman for the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense, which oversees the RAF, also rejected the claim, saying F-35 pilots only use the program’s second-generation helmet developed by Rockwell Collins Inc.

“The helmet used in the Eurofighter has never flown in an F-35 Fighter Jet and the UK has no plans to switch to using the Eurofighter helmet in F-35 Fighter Jets,” she said in an e-mailed statement.

The existing design was deemed “safe to use when conducting current and near term flying tasks,” though earlier in development it experienced “minor technical issues” that will be corrected in the third-generation helmet, according to the statement. The latter is expected to be ready in 2016, when the UK’s first operational squadron begins training, it stated.

Arguably the most interesting footage came in an extra segment, titled “Can the F-35 be Hacked?” — with another Star Wars reference. The correspondent compared the aircraft’s automated parts-replacement system, known as the Autonomic Logistics Information System, or ALIS (pronounced “Alice”), to the film’s beloved robot, R2-D2.

“Think of ALIS as the R2-D2 of the F-35,” Martin said, “because it really does control what the F-35 can do … She looks basically like a laptop computer and the pilot carries it out to the plane and sticks it in a slot right next to him in the cockpit and that contains all the information about the mission he’s going to fly.”

The servers that process the information take up an area the size of a shipping container, Martin said. When it was given to the military, however, the system had incorrect parts numbers in the database and, as a result, has erroneously recommended grounding the aircraft, he said.

“Even though the maintenance person knew what part he needed to put on it, ALIS was telling him, ‘No, you needed this other part,'” said Air Force Col. Rod Cregier, who runs the F-35 test program, during the taping. “ALIS thinks she knows everything about the airplane. She won’t let you do anything counter to herself.”

Marine Lt. Gen. Robert Schmidle agreed. “We need to have the ability to override the algorithms that are built into that system to determine whether an aircraft is safe to fly or not,” he said during the interview. “I didn’t design ALIS. I didn’t develop ALIS. I’m trying to do everything I can to make ALIS work for us.”

The rigidity of the system invited comparisons not to the friendly robot R2 of Star Wars, but to the more menacing machine HAL 9000 of the science-fiction flick, “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

In addition, the plane’s reliance on software and information technology makes it a target for hackers, Schmidle said. “It’s kind of like you using your smart phone to do banking,” he told Martin. “You are taking a greater risk than if you walk down to the teller at the bank and say, ‘Hey, this is what I wanted to do.”

While Schmidle said he’s “confident” that the military will be able to protect the aircraft’s data networks, he also acknowledged that “it’s not going to be easy and it’s not going to happen overnight.”

Stephen Welby, the Pentagon’s deputy assistant secretary of defense for systems engineering, is leading a 13-member team of independent experts in reviewing the F-35’s software problems. The work is expected to be completed next month.

About the Author

Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of Military.com. He can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.
  • FormerDirtDart

    Neither R2-D2 nor HAL. Simply Windows Vista

    • LawnDart106

      Vista become Windows 7 however, which fully works.

      And who is “Neil Jones of England”?

    • redviking

      More like Win 95 Beta

    • jbaldwin

      Compartmentalize , that way you can bypass the rigidity of the system.

    • It is probably using a real time operating system. None of the commercial desktop operating systems are real time.

    • David

      That’s fine. Anything but Windows Me.

  • Ben

    The information overload is (in my opinion) likely due to the fact that a bunch of stiff, robot-like engineers designed the interface. They can code like nobody’s business but when it comes to aesthetics and presenting information in a fluid, easy to digest way, you’d be better off hiring a monkey.

    God forbid them hire a reputable graphic designer to work alongside the pilots though. That’s just crazy talk.

  • Mike

    Mid 90’s I was using a high-end HD HMD for a Defense Contractor PC Game (EF2000) whereby I was tracking targets around the plan in a VR environment. Question I have is, does the described computer speak to the pilot? No mention of dialog between pilot and computer as like a HAL 9000.

  • Peter

    The disaster just rolls on and on…….

    I get the feeling that everyone involved knows the F-35 is never going to work but also know that too much money has been spent to come out and say it. So the money keeps getting spent and the plane still doesn’t work, so more money gets spent and so on until there is no money left.

    And still no plane.

  • rtsy

    Did anyone ever bother to ask the pilots if they needed all this software and a half million dollar helmet in the first place?

    • david

      The Israeli lobby in Washington is pushing this piece of crap helmet on us since it’s 1 of their companies that is getting US taxpayer dollars to develop it.

    • Really, you think pilots don’t want to know when a missile has been launched and where it was launched from? You think they should look out of their cockpit and see enemy fighters 70 miles away? You think that seeing through the plane isn’t an advantage? You think the pilot should look away from the fight to check his fuel status?

    • Tiger

      It’s 2014, not 1939. Ring sights & rear view mirrors do not cut it as info systems anymore.

  • RRGED

    The name is IM-X-PNZIV

  • Weaponhead

    I’m afraid I can’t do that Dave…

  • tee

    More on the “Junk Strike Fighter” from 60 Minutes
    .
    Journalism Fail: All the Sources in Stealth Jet Story Are PAID to Praise the Plane https://medium.com/war-is-boring/3914aaf3ce5d

    • William_C1

      The only people with the inside picture of the overall program work for the government or the company building the thing? What a shocking revelation… Why didn’t they run to an expert like Pierre Sprey who still thinks our primary fighter should be little more than an “improved” F-16 without radar and relying purely on passive sensors?

      So the pilot would just have to pray and fly towards the enemy until he gets close enough for his weapons to be of use. Presuming he miraculously evades all of the radar guided missiles being shot at him, the exchange of advanced IIR missiles would likely result in both aircraft being shot down. Lets not even think about its limited use in long-range strike missions against defended targets.

      But back to that article. Many alternatives? The F-22 which is now out of production and has a very limited ability to strike ground targets with the two types of JDAMs it is qualified for. We cannot do much more with the F-15, F-16, and F/A-18 design which will be outclassed or equaled in most aspects by the new generation of Russian and Chinese aircraft. Dealing with ground based air defense systems will also be much more difficult.

      Drones? Well if you want to wait another decade maybe you could get a UCAV (costing way more than your average MQ-9 Predator) that could do most of the F-35’s job as long as you maintained a command link. If you lose that command link in say an electronic-warfare intensive environment, its limited to its autonomous capabilities which even by then will still be quite stupid compared to a human pilot.

      And shocking news that complicated systems like the HMDS are still a work in progress? Since it isn’t working at 100% yet I suppose we should just give up and walk away from that promising technology, right?

  • Big-Dean

    “24 million line of code”

    don’t they mean

    “24 million line of outsourced copy and paste code from unsecured Indian (Chinese owned) programmers that will morph into 57 billion lines when it’s all “fixed” by the year 2047 or 25 Trillion dollars, whichever comes first”

    just imagine how many “back doors” this code has…..not a pretty thought

  • Tad

    “…a $500,000-plus helmet-mounted display that lets pilots see through the floor of the cockpit”.
    They were also considering a $50 floor-mounted window that lets pilots see through the floor of the cockpit.

    • Atomic Walrus

      They used to do that with the Brewster Buffalo and Grumman F4F Wildcat. Didn’t help them much.

  • PolicyWonk

    Being a computing professional, I’d personally be very uncomfortable with needing that much code to fly and manage an aircraft (and its weapons systems).

    And the information overload problem w/r/t the helmet is nuts – aren’t there any user interface designers working with the pilots who know darned well what they want and need to see?

    • Big-Dean

      wow, you say one “true” thing about the program and your comment gets deleted!

      what’s the point of having a forum if it is censured?

    • tmb2

      The Apache has an eye piece in its helmet that can switch between multiple information displays. The pilot pretty much flies with one eye on the HUD and one eye on the rest of the world.

    • Mark

      They do and have been working with pilots to create the UI. At least that is what I have been reading and hearing from the test pilots of the planes once it’s beginnings.

    • MarkSmith

      Uncomfortable with needing that much code to fly??? Try the car you drive to work everyday has more code than this jet fighter, mostly due to the fact that software engineers today have gotten lazy and use auto-code generation for their applications instead of hand coding. This make large, bloated code. Have fun finding a bug in that auto generated code.

  • Lance

    Its a HAL this who program is a HAL. Its a evil monster which wont die this piece of crap plane wont die its a failure and should go away. But the corruption in the DOD is on display when they refuse to for there on personal gain.

  • 009

    The technology has’nt caught up yet on the helmet, as a tax payer had the DOD resurrected the YF-23 years ago it would have been all good!

  • Major Mike

    Did anyone ask the user (pilot) what they needed for an advanced fighter. It looks like they are going to get vaporware (software which the vendor promises will work but once its paid for all the features seem to be bugged). Having managed several projects involving integration of complicated software into a product, the only true successes came from upfront and continuous integration of the user into the total build out of the product. Failure always resulted in millions of man hours doing fixes and ending up with a patch work product costing enormous amounts of government money and in many cases a POS. Just think the F35 could become the Bradley Fighting Vehicle for the Air Force.

    • BajaWarrior

      What? Ask the end user what they need? C’mon, what politician would give up spending tax payer money on their constituents or general would give up the opportunity to set themselves up with a future job in the defense industry?

      BLATB (Bottom Line at the Bottom), that just would make too much sense.

  • Fyayldt

    This thing is a boondoggle of the worst sort not user friendly way too complicated and way too expensive. Better get ready to upgrade the planes they have flying now The A10 will keep doing ground support as long as they need it and we have other great planes flying too the F35 is an attempt to solve a problem that didn’t need solving by spending a fortune so basically it lined somebody’s pockets.

  • BJFL

    Don’t need the F35 in a nuclear war. Spend that money to help our vets and present troops. I am sure the Wounded Warrior Project and a lot of others could use the help. Just the price of one helmet would make a difference.

  • Information overload, eh? maybe the military needs to incorporate some of the stuuf 3rd party mods authors make for World of Warcraft and other games. I have seen people’s GUI’s so “overloaded” with info and do well in their environment that this excuse seems somewhat invalid to me.

    Yea I name dropped WoW, but gaming applications are substantially valid in modern military training and executions. Just go to youtube or google images “crazy WoW UI”. People are functioning on a very competetive level with that kind of HUD

    • blight_

      Or Koreans playing a large game of FFA starcraft. Processing what multiple opponents are doing in the same battlespace, albeit 2D is an interesting skill to have.

      The question is always determining /what/ is necessary for the pilot to process. It’s easy to simply pass everything to the pilot, but this isn’t always necessary.

    • David

      That was the silliest bs I have ever read. Thats like saying because I play a Madden I would be an awesome football player. Playing a video game and piloting a supersonice fighter are not close at all. Thats just plain silliness.

    • MasterGreenleaf

      BRILLIANT ! I SO AGREE. Gamers should be designing it.

  • Ball

    Brown, purple , orange any color we think needs to be bombed!

  • Liam

    Skynet?

  • nicomede

    Don’t be too proud of this technological terror you’ve constructed. The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.

  • William Kid

    Can the $500,000 helmet stream video P0rn?

  • RRBunn

    Some of the dumbest and most shortsighted comments I’ve read. The F-35 is the second Gen 5 fighter. Because we expect our aircraft to last 30 to 50 years, we need to push the technology. All complex programs have their growing pains. The advantage is that this aircraft will be able to fight in a near peer environment where the F-16 cannot.

  • Frank

    Open the pod bay doors, Hal…

  • It occurs to me that the manned fighter jet is on its’ way out with the onset of each new generation of UAVs. In no more 30 years unmanned aircraft will be flown by people sitting somewhere in the United States over war zones all over the world. Boeing is in the final stages of testing a long-range UAV right now that (Phantom Eye) that if/when it is used will change the face of war beyond everyone’s understanding (Painting targets, troop support, reconnaissance, etc.). It will make even the F-35 pretty much obsolete.

    • Mark

      Drones can and are already being hacked by Iran.

    • Ditto!

    • JJ Murray

      Here’s the thing about ANY remote system that relies on a signal being sent to it. It can be JAMMED and jamming is cheap. Oh sure, you can have preloaded backup flight plans, etc. programmed into the UAV, but that seriously degrades its capability and removes all control from the operator making the UAV a far less effective combat tool.
      For a few hundred dollars anyone can build a broad frequency jammer that can overcome a signal being sent down from a satellite. Just imagine what you can build with the resources of a government?

  • Warren

    Looks like we need to come up with a system that bombs ANONYMOUS people. If you have an opinion, at least have the balls to say who you are. It gives it punch, not wimper.

  • Just plug in a PS3 in place of the master computer and save a few billion.

  • Stan

    Who here is surprised that an unparalleled piece of tech such as F-35 being developed in large degree de novo is having teething issues. Most game developers can’t deliver a bug-free product and their stuff is a tad simpler than what amounts to an operating system for a complex machine organism.

  • RICO

    This jet is such a waste of funds. They should have invested In the more advanced F15. They would have saved so much money that way, instead we’re stuck with a money sucking fighter.

    • Tiger

      It is a 40 year old plane. More “advanced?” How more advanced can you make a 1975 NOVA? Not enough, to cut it 30 more years.

  • Bronco46

    All this gassing about the F-35 is difficult to listen to again. All this negativity just a repeat of similar complaints that have been made almost since the Egyptian Empire.
    More recently all the complaining about the Osprey for example. Few people today would attack that program; but during development, it was savagely attacked; and nearly cancelled. The P-38, B-26, B-29, F-4, F-18, etc., etc.. R&D takes time and money. If we are to remain able to give our war fighters the best weapons possible; not just to guarantee a victory, but to increase the human to survive and continue to fight; and eventually go home one day.
    The biggest problem I see amongst the dissenters is that they don’t have enough information to know what they are talking about. And many have never put their own lives at risk in combat; only 40,000,000 men and women have been in our military since the beginning of the country; with the population being eight times that today; there are a lot of people with poorly informed opinions.
    And lastly yes I know there are some who are veterans that are against this program; but like I said earlier they don’t have enough current information.
    I expect a great flurry of negativity. Try to make your replies in more the one syllable words.

  • Hialpha

    rtsy — you get a door prize! Also, so does RRBunn!

    I’m not totally convinced of this program from the way it’s politically engineered to it’s supposed capabilities. That being said, historically most new acquisitions are riddled with growing pains and this aircraft seeks to fuse a lot of things together in new ways so it’s going to be a while until it gets to combat and actually proves how good it will be. In the mean time, people are going to be trained and tactics developed as always and the rest will “come out in the wash.”

    Pilot’s love the JHMCS though it is really heavy and cumbersome under G. The info and hi-off-boresight capability it provides is great. Unfortunately, I think they’ve gone past the level of sensible on this new helmet. For one, I read that it projects 20-40 vision to the pilot, so if that’s true in the BVR arena it’s like a video game but in the WVR arena — which is where you’ll really kill yourself by hitting somebody on a training mission, the loss of acuity and jittering as you move your head rapidly around is going to be murder. Literally.

    As for ALIS, this is nothing new, they just gave the software too much authority so that people no longer have the ability to make decisions which people will need to. They are working on it though so I’m not worried.

    Taking a mission data load to program the airplane is nothing new either. It’s great for tailoring missions, but it’s also a well known single point of failure to get the poor thing off the ground.

  • JJ Murray

    I’ve said it before bu it needs repeating…this aircraft is a bridge too far.
    It’s time to take what has worked and incorporate that into either existing airframes or a new, less expensive airframe. Take the rest back to the lab and continue working on them on your own dime. When you have them working correctly, THEN come back with a proposal.

  • afret1991

    NO confidence !!

  • wtpworrier

    I would hope “R2-D2”, it’s more user friendly. HAL kinda freaked me out a little.

  • Neither, it just a lemon.

  • Waste of money…our enemy now is a few Guys with an AK or RPG who plant IED’s or drive VBIED’s. Could have built and deployed thousands of Drones for the cost of one of these flying Boondoggles.

  • hibeam

    Is the F-35’s Computer R2-D2 or HAL or POS. They left off the third and most popular choice. But don’t get me wrong. At half the price and half the development time the F-35 would be twice the plane.

  • oblatt2

    The F-35 is a tour-de-force of lazy planning and miserable execution. Time and time again we see bad design decisions being made compounded by terrible implementations and the result accepted by lowering the requirements and the mantra that there is no alternative to failure.

    So now we have an aircraft that’s isn’t even a fighter anymore its a light bomber with miserable performance and pathetic payload.

  • Hal-Luke Savas

    In my opinion quantity over quality wins wars.. instead of a single F35 but buying hundreds of lesser aircraft and saturating the skies and the ground with troops and simple flying machines will win wars for sure.. show me a war that was won on quality of machines !!! yet we are witnessing wars won by dusty boots, camo vests and ammo belts moving fast and light on the ground !!

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