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F-35 software isn’t ready for prime time, Pentagon report says

United States Air Force

The Defense Department has made “virtually no progress in the development, integration, and laboratory testing” of software for production versions of the F-35 Lightning II fighter aircraft, the Pentagon’s testing arm said in a report submitted to Congress Tuesday.

Testing of the software for production aircraft in the $397 billion Joint Strike Fighter program will not be completed until 2017, the report said.

The 342-page report from J. Michael Gilmore, director of operational test and evaluation for Defense, covers a range of military systems under development and devotes 16 pages to problems with the over-budget and behind-schedule fighter program.

Contractor Lockheed Martin Corp. develops software for the F-35 in a series of five blocks.  The annual report reveals all blocks are incomplete and behind schedule.

Software development for the F-35 stands out as one of the “largest and most complex projects” in history, totaling some 9.5 million lines of code for the aircraft -- three times the amount of code in the F-22A Raptor fighter, the Government Accountability Office reported in July 2012.

The operational test and evaluation report said F-35 Block 1 software, used in test aircraft and lacking any combat capability, has not been completed, with some 20 percent not integrated and delivered for flight test. Block 2A software experienced a four-month delay in delivery for flight test, with only 50 percent of the software delivered.

Block 2B software, designed to manage missiles and bombs, was supposed to have been ready for use at the end of 2012, but as of August, only 10 percent had been delivered, the report said. Block 3i software, planned for use on production aircraft and hosted on an upgraded computer processor, “has lagged on integration and laboratory testing.” 

The Block 3i software is expected to enter flight test in mid-2013 and the final production version, Block 3F, will start a 33-month series of flight tests in early 2014, the report said, which puts the end of these tests close to 2017.

Dealing with multiple versions of software used on test aircraft flown by the Air Force, Navy and Marines requires F-35 program managers to “manage limited resources, including the software integration labs, the cooperative avionics test bed aircraft, and the mission systems test aircraft, to address the needs of multiple versions of software simultaneously,” the report said.

It added, “The demand on flight test to complete test points for verification of capability for production software releases, while simultaneously accomplishing test points for expanding development of capability will continue to challenge the test team and add to the inherent concurrency of the program.”

In his introduction to the overall test report, Gilmore highlighted problems with software development in military systems. “The test-fix-test cycle for software is faster and less visible than for other systems types. For many software issues, there is no meaningful distinction between maintenance and follow-on development. Given the speed of software development, the inability to oversee software in detail, and the fact that one must develop code to fix code, the line between fixing defects and adding features is nearly always blurred,” Gilmore wrote.

He added, “Given the pace at which new security patches and product updates and changes in the computing environment occur, there is also essentially no such thing as a stable software system. For all of these reasons, I have concluded that operational testing of software must include a demonstration of the program’s ability to perform robust and repeatable testing in support of software maintenance.”

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