F-35s hit by another big setback

The code delay is the latest—and possibly most damaging—setback for the Pentagon’s ambitious and controversial plan to replace almost all of its Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps fighters with three different versions of the F-35 at a cost of more than a trillion dollars over the next 50 years.

Damaging, because the military and F-35-maker Lockheed Martin have increasingly sold the F-35 as a sort of “flying computer” whose software can outthink enemy pilots even when the enemy’s own planes fly faster, maneuver better and carry more weaponry than the F-35 does.

The stealth fighter’s software is its last possible claim to being a first-class warplane. If the F-35’s code doesn’t work, then neither does the F-35. Saddled with thousands of dysfunctional F-35s, the Pentagon could lose command of the air.

According to Gilmore, the Block 3F code delay is a consequence of the F-35 developers’ rush to install the earlier Block 2B software, which is suitable only for testing and training but is supposed to form the basis of the later, combat-ready code. The developers’ hurry with Block 2B resulted in “poor performance” that slowed progress on subsequent code. …

But either option means a “very high risk of failing” when the F-35 with Block 3F code undergoes its developmental final exam in 2018, Gilmore warned. In a move with more public relations value than military utility, in July the Marine Corps declared a single squadron of F-35s combat-ready with the Block 2B software. The Air Force plans to declare a squadron combat-ready in late 2016 with an interim software called Block 3I, but the flying branch is waiting until the Block 3F code is ready before it clears its F-35 squadrons to deploy to the most dangerous conflict zones.

And rushing the Block 3F software could have the same deleterious effect on the nextbatch of code that rushing the Block 2B software had on Block 3F. If the F-35 developers can’t get the current software update right, they risk derailing the stealth fighter’s entire development. It’s no exaggeration to say that the future of U.S. air power rests on these 8 million lines of code.

World’s Most Expensive Jet Somehow Gets Worse