The Pentagon is currently flying software block 2B on F-35 test fights, and is starting the process to load block 3I onto test flights. (Alex R. Lloyd/US Air Force)
The F-35 program is largely on track, but software remains a concern that could lead to delays down the road, according to top Pentagon officials.
The Pentagon is currently flying software block 2B on test fights, and is starting the process to load block 3I — essentially, the same software with better hardware – onto test flights. The situation is slightly different with the 3F block of software, which will deliver the greatest capabilities for the plane and is expected in the 2018 time frame.
“Our belief is that we're about six months behind in software development there,” US Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the head of the F-35 program office, said during Thursday conference call about the fifth-generation fighter. “That is if we don't do anything different and we don't get any better over the next two to three years in developing that software. So I have to do everything I can to work with Lockheed to ensure that we take that six months and move it back so that we don't impact anything in the future.”
The biggest challenge with 3F is the “fusion” of data, Frank Kendall, DoD undersecretary for acquisition, said.
“It's merging of information from different sensor systems on the aircraft and off the aircraft, information that comes from other airplanes that's transmitted to the F-35 and then merged with its own information,” he said.
“That's a difficult processing problem, it's a difficult computational problem,” Kendall continued. “And just going through all the tests and getting the different aircraft that might need to be in a test together so that you can pull all the test off is challenging. And that's where the scheduling backup comes in.”
The Navy intends to go operational with 3F, but Bogdan said the service would not necessarily hold up going operational if 3F is delayed. The Marines intend to go through IOC in 2015 with the block 2B software, while the Air Force will use the block 3I in 2016.
William LaPlante, Air Force undersecretary for acquisition, said in a Friday speech at the Atlantic Council that he was “reasonably confident” the Air Force would meet its IOC date.
Kendall used the call to announce a program “blueprint for affordability,” which involves establishing incentives for industry members to encourage a “high rate of return for the government in future cost savings.”
LaPlante expanded on Kendall’s comment, noting the plane “involves industry doing investment on its own and being able to get benefits of that investment, with the taxpayer and warfighter getting a cheaper airplane.”
Quantity remains the largest driver of cost savings for the program at this point, something Kendall noted in his opening comments.
“Every time someone slips their buys, it increases the cost for the other partners. And we're all aware of that and we're all committed to trying to hold the line on our production plans,” he said.
“Now for the US in particular, that's a problem because of the threat of sequestration. We can't make a firm commitment to our partners that we're going to be able to do what we have asked for in our budgets because of that. And it's an unfortunate situation and one of the many negative impacts of sequestration hanging over our heads.”