F-35’s biggest problems: software and bad relationships

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is a "monster" of a program and some of its toughest developmental challenges may still be ahead of it, said deputy JSF program manager Air Force Maj. Gen. Christopher Bogdan today, in refreshingly frank discussion of the biggest weapons buy in Pentagon history. In particular, those challenges revolve around software ...

Lockheed Martin
Lockheed Martin
Lockheed Martin

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is a "monster" of a program and some of its toughest developmental challenges may still be ahead of it, said deputy JSF program manager Air Force Maj. Gen. Christopher Bogdan today, in refreshingly frank discussion of the biggest weapons buy in Pentagon history. In particular, those challenges revolve around software delays, a glitchy helmet, and fixing a toxic-sounding relationship between the Pentagon and F-35 maker Lockheed Martin.

Comparing the troubled F-35 program to a massive aircraft carrier that two years ago "was gonna run aground," Bogdan said that F-35 program manager Vice Adm. David Venlet and his team, with Lockheed Martin and with the help of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, "has steered that ship...away from the shoals so it won't run aground." The F-35 office finally "has a plan in place today that is, potentially achievable. I'm not sure I could have said that" two years ago, said Bogdan during a speech at an Air Force Association-sponsored conference in Maryland. "What I can tell you today is, at least we can see the light at the end of the tunnel and at least we have reasonable confidence that [with] what we have in place today, we can get there...."

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is a "monster" of a program and some of its toughest developmental challenges may still be ahead of it, said deputy JSF program manager Air Force Maj. Gen. Christopher Bogdan today, in refreshingly frank discussion of the biggest weapons buy in Pentagon history. In particular, those challenges revolve around software delays, a glitchy helmet, and fixing a toxic-sounding relationship between the Pentagon and F-35 maker Lockheed Martin.

Comparing the troubled F-35 program to a massive aircraft carrier that two years ago "was gonna run aground," Bogdan said that F-35 program manager Vice Adm. David Venlet and his team, with Lockheed Martin and with the help of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, "has steered that ship…away from the shoals so it won’t run aground." The F-35 office finally "has a plan in place today that is, potentially achievable. I’m not sure I could have said that" two years ago, said Bogdan during a speech at an Air Force Association-sponsored conference in Maryland. "What I can tell you today is, at least we can see the light at the end of the tunnel and at least we have reasonable confidence that [with] what we have in place today, we can get there…."

The F-35 effort has encountered years worth of delays and billions of dollars in cost-overruns after more than a decade in development.

While the $1.5 trillion program has righted itself over the past two years and is sailing toward open seas — his words, not ours — it faces some serious challenges in the years ahead.

"If folks don’t think that things are gonna go wrong in the next two to five years in this development program, I gotta tell you otherwise," said Bogdan. "We’re gonna find things that we didn’t know about and are gonna have to deal with them, but at least this scheduleis laid out to accommodate unexpected problems."

Now that costs and production-line problems are both coming down, the biggest challenges facing the program are related not to the stealthy jet’s design, but software — and most importantly, people, said Bogdan.

Here are the biggest challenges the F-35 now faces, according to Bogdan:

  • Developing the final and most complex block of software on the aircraft, known as Block III.
  • Retooling the jet’s incredibly complex computer-based maintenance — a system known as ALIS (Autonomic Logistics Information System) — to protect classified information on the aircraft.
  • Fixing the jet’s potentially revolutionary helmet, which isn’t working well enough to allow pilots to fly into combat with.
  • Building trust between the Pentagon office charged with managing the program (known as the Joint Program Office), F-35-maker Lockheed Martin, and the various customers for the jet. Bogdan said the relationship between these three groups is the worst he’s ever seen in 20 years of working on acquisition programs.

First off, "there’s an awful lot of software on this program, it scares the heck out of me," said Bogdan of the jet’s more than 10 million lines of software code. "It’s the gorilla in the room."

The development of the jet’s Block II software is 90 to 120 days behind schedule, according to the two-star general. Because of this delay and the increased complexity of the jet’s third and final software block, Lockheed Martin and the Defense Department have added additional resources to fielding Block III software — code that will fuse all of the jet’s famous sensor capability together for its pilots — which is much more complex than the Block II software, according to Bogdan.

Still, "what gives me pause is that [Block III] is very, very complex because that is where we do all the integration of all the pieces and parts of the software and the mission systems on the airplane, so the level of complexity in Block III goes up a notch," said Bogdan.

Meanwhile, the program is hustling to make the jet’s helmet – made by Vision Systems International — ready to go to war by 2015, when the Marine Corps plans on flying its jets operationally. The helmet is meant to display all of the jet’s vital flight and combat information on its visor as well as provide night vision capability. The current version isn’t displaying that information correctly.

"Today we have a helmet that works in a very rudimentary way" but has number of problems and "we have a plan place to fix them," said Bogdan. "If the Marine Corps truly intents to go IOC [Initial Operational Capability — the plane’s ready-for-basic combat date] in 2015 with Block IIB software, not all of those fixes will be ready by then."

Bogdan’s office has dedicated one F-35 test jet to do nothing but helmet test missions over the next 60 to 90 days to determine if the helmet can perform basic combat missions.

"We’re gonna gather as much information about that helmet as we can to answer two fundamental questions," said Bogdan. "One: how good or bad is the helmet today? What can we really do with it in terms of night flying, flying in the weather, our basic warfighting missions for Block IIB. Second, is the helmet viable long term if we make those fixes? If it’s not then we’ve got a big problem because you don’t fly this airplane without [this] helmet."

The JSF office is also looking at the BAE Systems-built backup helmet to make sure that it can meet programs needs should the primary helmet prove inadequate.

ALIS is meant to feed information on the health of each F-35 to maintenance crews and mission commanders, automatically detecting problems and scheduling the jets for maintenance among other tasks. As such, ALIS is a "heck of a complex system . . . if we don’t get [ALIS] right,  we don’t fly airplanes," said Bogdan.

What’s wrong with ALIS? One really important word: security.

"You don’t mission plan without it, you don’t maintenance debrief without it, you don’t pull your training records without it, you don’t make sure the airplane is ready to go without it — so it’s so crucial to maintaining this airplane. It’s frightening, almost," said Bodgan. "One of the big problems was security. You can imagine that a system that has all that information about an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in it: what parts need to be fixed, what pilots are qualified, what maintainers are qualified, what mission planning is going on. You’ve got to protect that information…. We did some testing and found some vulnerabilities."

But the Joint Program Office is on track to install the fixes by November, according to Bogdan.

Finally (and most importantly, according to the two-star general), "the relationship between Lockheed Martin, the JPO, and the stakeholders is the worst I’ve ever seen — and I’ve been in some bad ones," said Bogdan. "I guarantee you: we will not succeed on this program if we do not get past that."

"It should not take 10, 11, 12 months to negotiate a contract with someone we’ve been doing business with for 11 years," added Bogdan as Lockheed Martin officials looked on. "There’s something fundamentally wrong with that. We’ve got to fix it, we’ve got to fix it…. I will tell you that I think that’s the biggest threat to this program today."

Put all of this together and "boy, you’ve got one complicated program on your hands. It’s a monster," said the two-star general.

Finally, a program this complex must fall back on the fundamentals of good acquisition. "That means know where every penny is, know where every person on the program is and what they’re doing and know where every pencil is — what I mean by pencil is, all the equipment — you’ve got to have that kind of discipline." Bogdan reiterated that last sentence when asked by  Killer Apps how the F-35 program will be run going forward.

As to finance concerns and cost overruns, "there is no more money or no more time in the development of this program," said Bogdan. "We will not go back and ask for anymore."

If the program is run with discipline, transparency, accountability, and a focus on how to make the airplane affordable in the long-term, "we’ve got a shot at getting this done. We’ve got a shot — it will not be easy, though," said Bogdan.

John Reed is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He comes to FP after editing Military.com’s publication Defense Tech and working as the associate editor of DoDBuzz. Between 2007 and 2010, he covered major trends in military aviation and the defense industry around the world for Defense News and Inside the Air Force. Before moving to Washington in August 2007, Reed worked in corporate sales and business development for a Swedish IT firm, The Meltwater Group in Mountain View CA, and Philadelphia, PA. Prior to that, he worked as a reporter at the Tracy Press and the Scotts Valley Press-Banner newspapers in California. His first story as a professional reporter involved chasing escaped emus around California’s central valley with Mexican cowboys armed with lassos and local police armed with shotguns. Luckily for the giant birds, the cowboys caught them first and the emus were ok. A New England native, Reed graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a dual degree in international affairs and history.

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