Pentagon Develops F-35’s 4th Generation Software

AF-7 Flight 185F-35 Joint Strike Fighter officials are in the early phases of mapping out a fourth software drop designed to ensure the fifth generation fighter can counter threats and weapons expected to emerge in the mid 2020’s and beyond, Air Force officials said.

“Block 4 will be that next block of software that we do. We will gather up all the requirements of what we need as a nation to counter the emerging threats that we can see even past what we can already do,” said Col. Carl Schaefer, the Air Force’s top Joint Strike Fighter integration official.

The fourth increment will build upon existing increments now in development, Schaefer added.

Many of the JSF’s combat capabilities are woven into developmental software increments or “drops,” each designed to advance the platforms technical abilities. There are more than 8 million individual lines of code in the JSF system.

Defense analysts and investigators said these lines of code poses the most significant risk to the timely development of the F-35. Delays in the software development will stall aircraft deliveries, the Government Accountability Office found.

Schaefer said many military officials with the JSF program disagree with the GAO’s March report.

“Challenges in development and testing of mission systems software continued through 2013, due largely to delays in software delivery, limited capability in the software when delivered and the need to fix problems and re-test multiple software versions,” the report states.

Schaefer said F-35 software development is largely on track.

Block 2B builds upon the enhanced simulated weapons, data link capabilities and early fused sensor integration of the earlier Block 2A software drop. Block 2B will enable the JSF to provide basic close air support and fire an AMRAAM (Advanced Medium Range Air to Air Missile), JDADM (Joint Direct Attack Munition) or GBU-12 (laser-guided aerial bomb), JSF program officials said.

The next increments, Blocks 3i will increase the combat capability even further and Block 3F will bring a vastly increased ability to suppress enemy air defenses.

The Marine Corps is planning to declare initial operational capability for its short-take-off-and-landing F-35B JSF by 2015 and the Air Force plans IOC with software block 3i in 2016, Schaefer said. Full operational capability will come with Block 3F, he added.

Block 3F will increase the weapons delivery capacity of the JSF as well, giving it the ability to drop a Small Diameter Bomb, 500-pound JDAM and AIM 9X short-range air-to-air missile, Schaefer added.

The AIM 9X is an Air Force and Navy heat-seeking infrared missile and the Small Diameter Bomb, or SBD, is a precision-guided, air-dropped Air Force bomb engineered with a next-generation seeker.  The SDB seeker uses what’s called a tri-mode seeker which can utilize millimeter wave radar, infrared guidance and semi-active laser technology, Raytheon officials said.

Block 4 will be broken down into two separate increments, Block 4A is slated to be ready by 2021 and Block 4B is planned for 2023. The first portion of Block 4 software funding, roughly $12 million, arrived in the 2014 budget, Air Force officials said.

“Block 4 will include some unique partner weapons including British weapons, Turkish weapons and some of the other European country weapons that they want to get on their own plane,” said Thomas Lawhead, operations lead for JSF integration office.

Lawhead added that Block IV will also increase the weapons envelope for the U.S. variant of the fighter jet.  A big part of the developmental calculus for Block 4 is to work on the kinds of enemy air defense systems and weaponry the aircraft may face from the 2020’s through the 2040’s and beyond.

“Coming up with requirements always starts with the threat. How are we going to meet national security objectives in the future?  Based on those objectives we look at the threat and then we decide how we are going to counter the threat,” Schaefer said.

The rationale for the Block 4 software increment is to keep pace with technological change and prepare technology for threats likely to emerge 20 years into the future, Schaefer and Lawhead explained.

“If you look back to 2001 when the JSF threat started, the threats were mostly European centric – Russian made SA-10s or SA-20s. Now the future threats are looking at more Chinese-made and Asian made threats. Those threats that are further out are the ones that are being focused on for Block 4,” Lawhead said.

About the Author

Kris Osborn
Kris Osborn is the managing editor of Scout Warrior.
  • Dfens

    The Pentagon isn’t “developing” any software. They are paying defense contractors to do that for them, and paying those contractors $1.10 to $1.15 for every $1.00 the contractors spend coming up with the Pentagon’s new software builds. I wish I could get someone to give me a $1.10 for every dollar I could spend. I’d spend myself rich, just like these defense contractors are doing.

    • Josh

      I’m not a business or finance major, but I’m assuming that it’s pretty hard to run a business making the exact same amount of money as you are spending.

      • ShamWowed

        No kidding, go to the E-bike article and you would have thought Darpa was demanding the first born from each household to become slaves. Yeah we get it, defense tech is expensive. Guess our astute accountants wish they could apply their taxes as they see fit.

      • Brian

        The issue is the cost-plus contract of the job where the contractor has no incentive to underspend on the job. They will always meet or exceed planned spending, up to the Nunn-McCurdy limit. If they are on a “critical” program, even these limits are not meaningful.

    • Dfens, you are so ignorant. A ten percent profit margin for software is actually a great deal. Companies like MicroSoft make up to 50% or more for software they develop. Not that it isn’t worth it, otherwise no one would buy it. You need a lesson in capitalism.

  • blight_

    Quick, more lines of code!

  • The plane isn’t even in service yet and we have had 4 computer upgrades proof that this plane is a loser and time for better planes i.e. Silent eagle and return or the F-22.

    • William_C1

      It doesn’t work that way, these are planned software implementations, not overhauling the basic avionics.

      • Big-Dean

        wrong William, open your eyes
        this is “planned” by Lockhead to make the most money by stringing out this program to 20 years

        so now they are cranking out empty airframes that can’t do the mission and perhaps by the year 2037 we might have a real working aircract but then we’ll be bankrupt

    • tiger

      If you folks had your way, we would Keep Making F 4 Phantom II’s forever.

    • ev3r3tt

      If we had our way, a qualified software companies would be making and testing software that works with the aircraft and completely functional in a 2 year window. This current aircraft software is running on 8 years and not completely functional with the first 6 years dysfunctional.

      • Big-Dean

        it we had our way we would’ve fired Lockhead years ago for corruption and incompetence

        • Dfens

          Fire them? We pay them extra for incompetence. A lot extra.

      • Actually, it is more like re-writing all the codes we learned from the F-15, F-16, F/A-18, F-117, and F-22 so it meets the F-35s airframe with additional code added to develop things like sensor fusion, the EO/DAS, the HMD, and other completely new technologies. The code we have on our other fighters didn’t happen over night, it took over 35 years for the software on these fighters to get them where we are today. If the Air Force asked Lockheed Martin to develop the F-16 in 1978, with the capabilities we have today, then we would have had a non-operational fighter waiting for software for 35 years. Now, 88% of the F-35 Block 3F code is already written and flying. I submit that testing the code is what is slowing the process down. Testing code actually requires flying hours in highly instrumented aircraft under very specific safety measures, and a huge amount of data collection and review. Now, please tell me how do you speed this up?

        • ev3r3tt

          This question is the trick. How to speed up all the old programming written in Fortran, Pascal, Assembly mostly running on 808xx processor. There is a lot of code that has been created, but holding on to legacy code complicates development. I know that the clock is uncontrolled in new systems, but using instances is actually a blessing in disguise. Working with newer technologies and making it work in a closed system. The code needs to move with existing technologies. This is only one way, and there are many ways. Hitting the full functionality on the first build should be the goal.

    • Mystick

      I was thinking the same thing.

    • guest

      This is the; ‘obamacare’ of jets……..

      • Dfens

        I love it when people “get it”. Guest has perfectly summarized the JSF program.

      • No, Obamacare was simply a web site to sign people up with an insurance policy that already exists. This is taking software development over the past 35 years in other jets, adding capabilities, and applying it to a completely new jet. Obamacare has nowhere near 8 million lines of code, and I never heard of anyone falling out of the sky if Obamacare website crashed. It would be like millions of people dying trying to sign up for healthcare. Dfens and guest – What Operational Flight Software have you ever written? And since you obviously are so good at it, try and sell your products to the DoD. Then you could be laughing all the way to the bank. Otherwise, your words are hot air.

    • Lance, the plane was designed for software upgrades. All our current fighters are getting software upgrades. The F-35 it actually the first plane designed to accept the upgrades as part of its development. As all our other planes were designed in the 70s and 80s, they weren’t designed for such detailed upgrades. So, like our current fighters, the F-35 will be upgraded continually until they are no longer flying. Unless you think having fighters designs remaining stagant is a good idea?

  • JKay

    Ya hear that? We’re talkin’ code

    • meow

      of course we’re talking.

      do you expect us to be writing it instead? that’s the job for the Indians, the Chinese, and the Russians.

  • tee

    They can’t even get Block 2 to work correctly, at the rate they are going the Block 4 will be “Done & Useable” by 2030 if they keep at their current pace.

  • nick987654

    According to this document:

    block 3F will have the sdb1, not the sdb2 with the tri mode seeker. the sdb2 will come with block 4.

  • Hunter76

    What is the likelihood the bulk of the code leaves in a microdrive?

  • ev3r3tt

    I really don’t like these block developments (aka: spiral development). Very costly and very lengthy. I really don’t think the military gets anything worth while out of it until the plane has aged half it’s life. This is a really big expense that should be removed in a sequester.

  • The soft wear if it work as promised will be out standing. But why are we putting it into such an inferior air frame? Why not put in into an update F-15SE, add super cruise and thrust vectoring to the F-15SE and start on the next generation fighter.

  • nick987654

    I don’t really get the rationale of fielding the 9x bl 1 at block 3F. The F-35 has all the sensors to use the block 2 at max range with its datalink so why bother with the block1?

    And the SDBII is very important to strike a lot of moving targets in stealth mode ( 8 internal ) . The 9X block 1 integration is far less important than the SDBII.

    Also does anybody know if the the JSOW at block 3F includes the 3 variants?

    • Josh

      I believe JSOW won’t be available for the F-35B (internally) due to the shortening of the weapons bay, but the other 2 variants should be capable.

      Besides that though, When you say Block 1, are you talking about the SDB 1 or the JSF Block 1 code? If the latter, then I think you have concepts mixed up…

      If you mean the former though, it’s because the JSF needs to integrate weapon datalink capabilities and with the tri-mode seeker of the SDB II; there’s more code to write and (especially) test for the various forms of targeting, whereas the SDB 1 only uses GPS, which is pretty much identical to develop for as the JDAM, which is the JSF and Coalition’s main munition.

      • nick987654

        I was talking about AIM-9X block 1. They want to integrate it in software block 3F and AIM-9X block 2 in software block 4.

        I don’t really understand why it is urgent to arm the F-35 with the AIM-9X block 1. If I were to integrate an AIM-9X variant, I would go for the block 2 directly because of its lock on after launch mode. In any case it seems to me the SDB 2 is much more usefull than the AIM-9X, so I don’t see why it has not been integrated in block 3F instead. I believe both the SDB1 and SDB2 can be updated by datalink, although the SDB1 can be launched with fixed GPS target coordinates ( SDB2 also probably).

        My point anyways was that the SDB2 is more urgent because it can destroy moving targets with a direct hit thanks to its tri-mode seeker. Even when the SDB1 is updated by datalink, it is not as accurate, and in order to destroy an armored vehicle it takes a direct hit.

        I believe you are right with the fact that the F-35B won’t be able to carry the JSOW internally. There are 3 variant of the JSOW so I was wondering if the 3 of them will be integrated at block 3F. Block 3F is more of a SEAD block, so maybe it’s only the cluster bomb variant.

      • As JSOW is somewhat stealthy, it can go on pylons with less stealth compromises.

    • Because the AIM-9X Block one has already been produced in numbers. Stupid not to be able to use them. The AIM 9X will be wingtip mounted and doesn’t interfer with the SDB II. Also, as we have not produced a single production SDB II, it is pretty hard to write code for it and test it properly. Putting the horse before the cart doesn’t work well.

  • oblatt22

    The F-35 is a tour de force of how not to manage a software project.

    Every 8 months they slice the salami thinner putting off features to a later phase as they deal with the existing disaster. Sure the stage 4 plans are for a palace – but you cant build a palace in a garbage dump by piling the garbage higher.

    The whole purpose of concurrent development is to have the software ready and finished when the aircraft is built. Instead we have 100 aircraft built that cant do anything – cant drop a bomb or fire a missile.

    • Dfens

      And what these articles don’t tell you is that each of these software builds requires full DO-178B certification before they are released to fly. That means the thinner they slice that salami, the more times they have to do all of the testing that comes along with that total waste of time and taxpayer’s money that is DO-178B. So rest assured, the defense contractors have it in their best interest to have as many of these software releases as possible because it takes far longer to test the code than it does to write and debug the code. Probably about 100 times longer. Given the fact that the F-35 software is being written under a contract that guarantees the contractor $1.10 for every $1.00 they spend, you can see the obvious benefit to Lockheed to certify this code over and over and over again. It’s nothing but free money.

  • hibeam

    Is the Pentagon still crowd sourcing their software development? Or did they fix that?

  • Barry

    U.S.A. — that once shining city on a hill. It was a nice idea while it lasted. With our divided government, run by fools with the emotional intelligence of 6-year olds, and our completely dysfunctional military industrial complex, we are indeed our own worst enemy.

    • ShamWowed

      Maybe you should run for political office of some sort. You act as if you have the capacity to identify all of our nation’s faults. I would be interested in your solutions.

  • Blake

    Not that development for the future is bad, but I think they should put more focus on getting their current software finished.

  • Louie

    This just kills me this POS hasn’t even gone into service the thing is barely off the ground after how many years???? and it’s getting a 4th upgrade WTF this thing is a bottomless pit for Def dollars. It better have a damn coffe cup holder and a cigarett lighter when its done.

    • grant

      I guarantee you there will be no coffee cup holder nor cigarette lighter; but how about a condom / vaseline / cocaine dispenser? How about a Playboy App for Block 69 upgrade?

    • TXCOMT

      Comin’ up on 20 years of R&D and almost 10 years of production.

  • Lightning

    It’s too bad the moderation policy can’t delete comments that contain no factual content and whose authors are completely uninformed regarding the F-35 Program. Of course it that were the case, none of the preceding comments would still exist. This aircraft will stand as the best Weapons System ever developed in the history of military hardware, and will serve to protect the US and our allies for decades to come. This won’t come for free. Get on board or move to another country where they don’t invest in national defence.

    • 45k20e4

      You are either delusional, being sarcastic, or have some serious inside information…by all means share your knowledge to back up that claim.

      Right now I see a hideously expensive project that is over cost and behind schedule….all while L-Ms pockets are lined.

      • Dfens

        Lockheed is making millions of dollars in free money every single day that airplane program drags on, but you make it sound like a bad thing.

    • Big-Dean

      “best Weapons System ever developed”


      omg, now I have hiccups….

      • oblatt22

        Yea it ranks up there with the Titanic as most unsinkable ship, Hindenburg as safest aircraft and Pompeii 79AD as best spot for a vacation.

    • ShamWowed

      Careful, you are suggesting the internet warrior-hood could be wrong. You are not a patriot if that is the case and ye shall be burned at the stake!

    • Hunter76

      And if you’re wrong?

  • Israel

    I don’t know much about defense but I am a project manager by trade. If I’m not mistaken project management is a science created by the U.S military. However, when I read threads such as this I often can’t believe it. The scope of this project has long since been compromised. Therefore, failed project.

    • Dfens

      As long as Lockheed is pulling money out of this program at the current rate it is not a failure. In fact, they are milking this cash cow for as long as possible this side of actually having to start a production line.

    • Snowden Rocks

      As you said it yourself, it’s a product of management SCIENCE of US military.

  • grant

    Why not start on Block 11 right away? Or do they always play catch-up to obsolete-on-arrival systems?

  • PolicyWonk

    Personally, I’ll be delighted when they figure out how to improve the less-than-4th generation performance for the 5th generation aircraft that has a 6th generation price tag.

    • Big-Dean

      by the time this so-called 5th air ‘frame” is ready for combat the Chinese and Russians will be fielding 7th gen ‘aircraft’ in large numbers

  • DShirley1

    My, my, sounds very similar to the startup of the ACA website… we know why the gov’t gets screwed on major projects….company contractors half bake the effort to keep the money rolling in…..Hmmmm, how PATRIOTIC is that!

  • Big-Dean

    I’m so glad we’re doing all of this “software” work for the Chinese, they will be sure to love us even more….

  • oblatt22

    Just last week one of our offices couldn’t get some 5c nuts from a US supplier because “export controls are too complicated” they then literally went and got them from a local hardware store – but hey if the F-35 wants to buy RF chokes for the AESA radar from China that is obviously OK.

    • ev3r3tt

      lol… ITAR at work which the suppliers should have known. Anyone (US Born Citizen) want to go into the magnet business with me?

    • Really, you are talking about less than a half dozen types of parts acquired by mistake, which were reported and will be replaced in future buys? Are you suggesting the the world should be suddely perfect tomorrow?

  • I love it when the Pentagon talks that way…

  • tee

    The Price of the “Junk Strike Fighter” just went up another 7.8 Billion according to Aviation Week.

    F-35 Cost Up $7.8B, Bogdan Fires on Pratt.

  • Wharthogcrewchief

    scrap the whole f-35 program, build a bunch more f-15e’s , block 60 f-16’s , fa-18’s and upgrade the wharthogs, all battle proven, overwhelm the enemy with volume.

    • ShamWowed

      So, no stealth capability?
      Are you going to tell your kids they should feel safe flying in 1970’s era technology?

    • Moving back in time is not an answer. While I love the Virginia Class SSNs, they really are not as good as and no cheaper than the Seawold class. Whatever we added to the Virginia’s could have been incorporated in the Seawolf. Yet, we lost many years, and lots of R&D money scrapping the Seawold and remaking it into the Virginia’s. You are proposing something akin to even worse by scrapping the Seawolf for more LA class subs???

  • Chief

    The F-35 effort has gone through a LOT of pain that could have been avoided by both the Government and the vendor. It is what it is. Need to move forward. None of the issues – most are software related – are major issues. They are painful to overcome, but not #unovercomeable.

    • Big-Dean


      • Big-Dean Why are the Chinese, Japanese, and Russians trying to build 5th Gen aircraft? What do you propose we use to defeat the J-31 and the T-50? And, why are new countries buying the F-35 if it is so bad. Singapore, South Korea are the latest, but certainly not the last. Note that countries trying to copy the F-22 and F-35 like China and Russia can’t buy the F-35.