Trillion-Dollar Jet’s Software Is in Development Hell

Code delays hobble the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is supposed to be America’s premier fighter jet for the next 30 years. But its biggest foe isn’t enemy planes—it’s ones and zeroes.

Software problems, that is. According to a Congress-mandated report released on March 24, the F-35’s mission management system is having so many problems that debugging the software requires extra work and could delay some of the aircraft’s advertised capabilities by more than a year.

This means taxpayers will have to fork over even more money for thousands of F-35s. The stealth jet program already has an over-budget program cost of more than $1 trillion, once you factor in maintenance expenses.

It’s more bad news for the troubled F-35, which Lockheed Martin designed as an all-in-one warplane for carrying out a gamut of missions normally conducted by more specialized planes. There are separate but similar versions for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. This “commonality” forces design compromises that make the JSF arguably less capable than even older fighters such as the F-16.

The F-35 also needs a daunting eight million lines of software code.

The Government Accountability Office report highlights delays with the stealth fighter’s mission system software. This programming controls the aircraft’s vital functions such as sensors and communications.

The audit found that testing of this software is behind schedule “due largely to delayed software deliveries, limited capability in the software when delivered and the need to fix problems and retest multiple software versions.”

F-35 arrival ceremony at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, on March 19, 2013. Air Force photo

The military has made limited progress in testing the F-35’s mission systems software, which caused the Pentagon’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation to predict that “the delivery of expected warfighting capabilities to the Marine Corps could be delayed by as much as 13 months,” the report added.

How bad is the situation? Only 13 percent of the Block 2B portion of the software—needed to make the F-35 operational—had been tested as of last January. The target was 27 percent.

Marine F-35s are supposed to become operational in July 2015, but “at this time it is not clear exactly which of the expected capabilities will be available as testing is still ongoing,” the GAO warned.

Meanwhile, GAO auditors question whether the U.S. can even afford the F-35. Current plans are to purchase 2,457 aircraft for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps by 2037, with development and acquisition costs estimated at $400 billion.

The jets would replace the bulk of the military’s F-16s, F/A-18s and A-10s.

But for the program to remain on schedule, the Pentagon will have to “steeply” ramp up spending for the next five years, disbursing an average of $12.6 billion per year until 2037. And that’s just on F-35 research and acquisition. The cost of operating and maintaining the JSF fleet could exceed $1 trillion, which Pentagon officials have deemed “unaffordable,” according to the GAO.

But the Air Force insists the F-35 is here to stay. Lockheed also touts the plane as an “unprecedented capability.” But considering the accumulating problems, it may turn out to be an unprecedented mistake.

You can follow Michael Peck on Twitter at @Mipeck1 or on Facebook. We’ve also published a new book all about the F-35. Sign up for a daily War is Boring email update here. Subscribe to WIB’s RSS feed here and follow the main page here.