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.

  • 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.

  • JKay

    Ya hear that? We’re talkin’ code

  • 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?

    • Seymour Buttes

      My Vegas bookie says smart money on blocks 3 and 4 walking out.

  • 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.

    • nick987654

      You can’t go operational with the full capabilities or it would take forever. A new release every 2 years is quite good, and it’s certainly possible to accelerate the introduction of a particular weapon in case of emergency. A software upgrade is no big deal.

    • Well, you never get anything unless you accept something. As to the extra expense, each drop is being modified, not completely re-written. The expense is mainly found in flight testing the code, not writing it. Jet fuel, spare parts, bombs and missiles are not free last time I checked.

      • ev3r3tt

        yeah. I know.

  • 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?

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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?

      • William_C1

        Hell if overwhelm the enemy with volume is the strategy why not go all the way back to P-51s? Maybe we ought to revert to M4 Shermans from the M1 Abrams too.

        • ShamWowed

          Yeah no doubt. Half the bashers in this thread would take you up on that offer. Most don’t realize it would take a draft to man that much equipment and we have long since transitioned to the quality over quantity mentality. Oblattipuss and Depends(Dfens) you listening? If you have friends or family in the military why don’t you ask them how they feel about flying the not-so-friendly skies in 1970’s airframes. Better still, why don’t you self-appointed defense experts enlist and let us know if your superior intellect transitions well on the battlefield.

    • 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.