A slow software loading process for the Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-35 delayed aircraft updates, but the latest software drop to be fielded this summer for the Combat Air Forces (CAF) has resolved that problem, a U.S. Air Force official said on March 18.
Under Continuous Capability Development and Delivery (C2D2), F-35s are expected to receive software updates every six months. C2D2 is divided into four six week quarters during which the U.S. Air Force 53rd Wing tests F-35 software tape updates. The 53rd Wing is the service’s primary operational test wing, which has about 50 units at 20 sites.
“We moved to C2D2 in Tape 3 for the F-35 back in the middle of 2019,” Air Force Lt. Col. Mike “Pako” Benitez, director of staff for the 53rd Wing, told a Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies’ Aerospace Nation forum on March 18 . “It proved the concept. Everyone decided this was what we needed to be doing. However, when we got into Tape 4, we ended up running into some process breakdowns. It really came down to a mentality.”
“Historically, we don’t have a mission support group or a maintenance group,” he said of the 53rd Wing. “We rely on host unit maintainers–training bases and operational bases–and the reason we did that in the past is because we like to have operationally representative maintenance so when we field something to the fleet, we want to make sure that the maintainers of the fleet can do it the same way, versus this is not executable for the airman on the flight line, but the 30-year experienced contractor can do it just fine. We don’t want that disconnnect.”
However, the host unit maintainers have lacked the software loading authorities that dedicated developmental test maintenance units have under so-called “red line tech orders.”
“What ended up happening in Tape 4 was out of that six week [software update] cycle we would lose two weeks just doing paper work to get approval to escort the jet with the software so we could test,” Benitez said. The result was a loss of two months of testing time every six months of C2D2.
“All these policies are self-imposed,” Benitez said. “I just like to say it’s not a contractor thing. It is a service self-imposed bureaucracy. But that lack of test time led to some serious catches at the 11th hour at the end of that fourth quarter. We were about to field a tape to the F-35, but the radar literally did not work, and it went all the way to the end of test until we realized the radar does not work. It was transmitting. It was not receiving and processing the signals right due to a software glitch. We didn’t field Tape 4. Instead, we went to football overtime and did an emergency tape to fix some of those issues, and then we fielded it.”
Northrop Grumman [NOC] builds the F-35’s AN/APG-81 active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar.
Like the F-35’s Tape 4, Tape 5 had similar software loading approval delays, but the 53rd Wing apparently has the approval now to load the latest software update, Tape 6, to be fielded on the F-35 fleet this summer.
“We do have the authorities to load the software,” Benitez said. “It took us way longer than I like to admit to get a signature on a piece of paper. Production Tape 6 will field to the CAF next month. Due to the C2D2 construct, all the capabilities that we did in Tape 5 that didn’t field, we rolled into Tape 6. Next month, when we start loading operational F-35s, they’re going to get Tape 5 and Tape 6 together so that will be a huge jump in capability. The F-35s you’re gonna see this summer are not the F-35s you saw last summer.”
The Government Accountability Office (GAO), in a new report, said that the latest F-35 hardware and software modernization effort–Block 4–was not realistic and that the Pentagon routinely underestimated the amount of work needed to develop Block 4 capabilities, an underestimation that led to more schedule delays. In May, 2019 DoD said that Block 4, now in its third year of development, is expected to cost $10.8 billion between fiscal 2019 and fiscal 2025. Last September, the Pentagon told Congress that cumulative Block 4 costs between fiscal 2013 and fiscal 2027 would total nearly $14.4 billion–a net increase of $1.9 billion from the May, 2019 estimate.
While GAO and some in Congress have advised making Block 4 a major defense acquisition program (MDAP), DoD objected and favors keeping Block 4 under the F-35 umbrella so as not to add administrative burden, cost and schedule delays to Block 4.