F-35 Program Continues to Struggle with Software

In 2001, after it had beat Boeing for the Joint Strike Fighter contract, Lockheed Martin Chairman Vance Coffman boasted that Lockheed would deliver a “truly remarkable, capable and affordable multi-role fighter, on schedule and on cost.” Back then, the F-35 Lightning II had a planned initial operating capability (IOC) for 2010 for the Marine Corps version (F-35B), 2011 for the Air Force version (F-35A), and 2012 for the Navy version (F-35C).

Those dates had already slipped by five or more years when, on Monday, U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the incoming director of the F-35 program, told the annual US Air Force Association conference that he was not optimistic that all the program's current problems—especially those related to software, which has long been a sore point (pdf)—would be fixed in time to meet the now hoped for Marine Corps 2015 IOC. He didn’t estimate what then might happen to the 2018 or so Air Force/Navy hoped for IOC dates. "Hoped for," because the services have been exempt for the past two years from having to officially declare an IOC date, given the past IOC schedule slippages. I suppose you can't miss a due date when there is no date.

Bogdan said there were continuing issues with the F-35 advanced helmet, which, when (if) it finally works, will allow a pilot to “see through the airplane.” Currently the helmet suffers from jitter problems, latency issues, and the inability to see sharp images at night. 

Bogdan told the conference audience, “You cannot go to war and you cannot fight with this airplane unless you have a helmet that works. Today, we have a helmet that works in a very rudimentary way.”

Lockheed has signed a contract with a second helmet maker for one that has less capability, but Bogdan said that the DoD “was still evaluating how quickly the alternate helmet could be integrated into the airplane,” according to a Reuters story.

Bogdan further stated that there have been IT security, maturity, and cost problems associated with the aircraft's Autonomic Logistics and Information System (ALIS). Without ALIS working properly, the “airplane doesn’t work,” Bodgan stated flatly. Problems with the latest ALIS software release have “held up delivery and payment of the latest aircraft out of the F-35 final assembly line at Lockheed Martin’s Fort Worth plant,” Aviation Week says.

Then there are those problems in the overall software development for the aircraft, as Reuters also reported. Back in March, the F-35 deputy program manager Air Force Maj. General John Thompson said that the recurring problems with software development could bring the program to its knees. Even though there has been extra effort spent to get on top of the issue, from Bogdan’s comments, software could stlll kneecap the program. There are now some 24 million lines of code—operational and support—needed for the F-35 to be fully operational; when the program started, the estimated number of lines of code required was closer to 15 million.

As if Lockheed's challenges weren't enough already, the company will have to fix the plane’s problems without more money from DoD. Bodgan stated in stark and unmistakable terms that, “There is no more money and no more time on this program. We will not go back and ask for more, simple as that.”

Bodgan’s statement was backed up by Air Force Secretary Michael Donley who also said, “The department is done with major restructures that involve transferring billions of dollars into the F-35 program from somewhere else in the defense budget. There's no further flexibility or tolerance for that approach.”  If there are more cost overruns on the program, then the number of planes would be cut back, the scheduled would be slipped even more, or the aircraft’s capabilities would be reduced, Donley indicated. All three at once are a possibility as well.

Those warnings are probably not going to improve the DoD-Lockheed Martin program acquisition relationship, which Brogan termed the “worst I’ve ever seen.” Maybe it’s because not only is the F-35 so troubled-plagued and late, but that its total estimated development and sustainment costs are likely to be a $1 trillion over the aircraft’s 50-year projected life. Perhaps Bodgan suspects, as I do, that is a low figure given how "accurate" predictions of defense programs costs usually turn out to be.

Coffman's boast, which included that the US and the UK (who was an original JSF program partner) could trust the company to get the job done right, looks a might hollow now.

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