Lockheed F-35's Balky Sensor Software Needing Fewer Reboots

  • Radar and sensor displays were shutting down every four hours
  • McCain calls the F-35's past delays `a scandal and a tragedy'

Software that runs radar screens and sensor displays on Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35 fighter is shutting down less frequently, requiring fewer reboots, according to the Pentagon’s chief weapons buyer and top tester.

The unstable software was causing the systems to shut down every four hours, forcing the pilot to reboot the systems in flight, but a new version is operating 10 hours between such “stability problems,” Undersecretary for Acquisition Frank Kendall and the F-35’s program manager said in prepared testimony for a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday.

The improved version has flown about 75 hours so far in 25 sorties since April, they said. The F-35 is a flying computer, with more than 8 million lines of software code. At a projected cost of $379 billion for a fleet of 2,443 aircraft, it’s also the costliest U.S. weapon system and one of the most closely scrutinized.

The F-35’s years of delay and cost increases have been “a scandal and a tragedy,” Senator John McCain, the committee’s chairman, said in opening the hearing. Still, the Arizona Republican said progress is being made to remedy “misguided decisions taken long ago.”

On the software issue, “we are cautiously optimistic that these fixes will resolve the current stability problems” but “are waiting to see how the software performs in an operational test environment,” Kendall and Air Force Lieutenant General Chris Bogdan, the program manager, said in their joint statement.

They said they believe the problems have been caused by “the timing of software messages from the sensors to the main” computer that fuses information into a usable format for pilots.

Schedule Questioned

Michael Gilmore, head of the Defense Department’s weapons testing office, partially agreed in his prepared statement to the panel. While “in-flight stability has potentially improved” compared with previous versions of the software, Gilmore said it was continuing to cause “significant initial start-up problems” before takeoff.

Gilmore also said the Pentagon was pursuing an unrealistic schedule for completing development and testing of the fighter’s most capable software, a version known as 3F.

The software needs to improve for the Air Force to achieve the program’s most important milestone this year: a declaration between August and December that its version of the F-35 has an initial combat capability. The Marines declared their version’s initial capability in July. The Navy has set August 2018 for its initial operating capability.

Profit Outlook

Lockheed raised its annual profit forecast Tuesday, as the largest U.S. contractor works to lower costs and bolster profit at the division that manufactures the F-35 and other military aircraft. Profit margins have been squeezed as the Bethesda, Maryland-based company resolved technical issues with the F-35 and then worked to speed production at its factories. Lockheed plans to deliver 53 of the advanced fighter jets this year, doubling output to about 100 by 2018.

The House Armed Services Committee in its chairman’s draft of the fiscal 2017 defense policy bill would add 11 jets to the 63 requested by the Pentagon for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1. The Senate panel will consider its version next month.

Kendall and Bogdan said the F-35 program continues to make “steady progress” toward completion by about Sept. 30, 2017, of its development and demonstration phase before the program can enter full production, the most lucrative stage for Lockheed.

Tight Deadline

Gilmore disagreed. Based on the program’s cumulative delays to date, the development phase “is clearly going to slip into 2018,” he said.

Gilmore also reminded lawmakers of the lingering, long-term consequences of the program’s overlapping development and early production, which Kendall once called “acquisition malpractice.”

“One of numerous penalties associated with highly concurrent F-35 development and production is that all the early operational aircraft now need many significant, time-consuming, and costly modifications,” Gilmore said. The most comprehensive testing of how well the F-35 performs in combat won’t begin until at least August 2018, a year later than planned, and more than 500 of the planned fighters may be built before the assessment is complete, Gilmore said.

Gilmore also cited “new discoveries of structural deficiencies which may cause further modifications and delays.”

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