WASHINGTON — The F-35B joint strike fighter remains on track to go operational for the Marine Corps this year, despite a recently discovered software fusion problem that manifests itself when multiple F-35 sensor suites attempt to communicate.
Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan, the head of the F-35 Joint Program Office, said the problem with the targeting software is being worked by a team of experts from inside and outside the Pentagon, and expressed confidence the issue would be solved relatively shortly.
He also noted that the Marines are aware of the issue and have decided it is not anything that should prevent them from reaching initial operating capability (IOC) with the 2B software package.
The software issue highlighted by Bogdan involves is focused on the sensor fusion that occurs between F-35 jets. The fighter is designed to gather information through its sensor suites and share it with other F-35s models in the area, with up to four jets gathering situational awareness data and creating a joint operational picture for the pilots.
In most cases, Bogdan told reporters Tuesday, the software fusion worked well. But in the most extreme cases, with multiple air and ground threats affecting impacting a set of four F-35s, "we found out that the fusion model sometimes, not all the time, sometimes creates an inaccurate picture for the pilot," he said.
"If there is a single ground threat, a surface-to-air missile [battery] on the range, and I have four F-35s all with their sensors on and operating flying into that airspace to see that one threat, what we want to have happen is we want, no matter which airplane is picking up the threat, from whatever angles and sensors, to correctly identify that single threat and then pass that information [to] all four airplanes, so all four pilots are looking at the same threat in the same place at the same time," Bogdan explained.
But during testing, operators found that the F-35 system had trouble identifying if the target was one target or multiple, something Bogdan said was a result of each plane looking at the target from a slightly different angle or using different sensors.
In response, Bogdan's team has begun began work to fix the issue, including bringing in outside software fusion experts and having them consult with Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor on the F-35.
In the meantime, the Marines are able to operate the jet by changes in the concept of operations used in flights. Although Bogdan was unwilling to go into operational details, he noted one potential workaround could involve breaking up the four-ship of F-35s in favor of two two-ship pairings.
It's not ideal, Bogdan conceded, and puts more strain on the pilots. But, he noted, it is still a more advanced system than anything the Marines are currently operating, such as legacy Harrier jets.
"The 2B software increment that was planned to be delivered in June, for which the Marine Corps intends to declare IOC [initial operational capability], will not have all the fixes of the deficiencies we've seen in testing over the last two months," Bogdan said. "It will be able to do all the things the Marine Corps needed it to do for Marine Corps IOC. It just requires the pilot to do workarounds."
Bogdan said the fixes to this issue will be in by the time the Air Force goes IOC in 2016.
The Marine Corps has a target date of July 1 2015 for IOC, but has built in leeway in the schedule that last several months. Bogdan is still targeting the July 1 date, although he admitted his timetable is "really tight" for hitting that.
Asked what his biggest concerns are about hitting IOC for the Marines this year, Bogdan identified four main areas, outside of software, that he is focused on.
The first is making sure there are 10 planes ready to go in the combat configuration required by the Marines. One-third of those jets will be modified shortly, Bogdan said, and a handful have been put into an Air Force depot to make sure the work is done on time. "It'll be done," Bogdan said confidently.
The second is training, as the simulator software needs to be upgraded to give pilots the most current program to train on. Again, Bogdan indicated confidence that would not be a problem.
More worrisome is the delivery of mission data files, which allow the F-35's system to identify objects in the air or on the ground. Those are on the "ragged edge" of being ready, Bogdan said, shouldering the blame for giving the Air Force unit that is developing those files poor tools to work with.
The autonomic logistics information system (ALIS), which manages maintenance and sustainment for the entire fighter fleet, is also still being worked on. Lockheed Martin has designed a smaller ALIS setup for the Marines' expeditionary needs.