The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program is the keystone to the future U.S. tactical aircraft fleet. For this reason and because the program has had some challenges, any time an institution as influential as the Government Accountability Office (GAO) warns of problems with the program people — particularly members of Congress — listen. In testimony before that august body this week, a GAO auditor warned that the F-35’s software development “is significantly behind schedule as it enters its most challenging phase.”
This would seem to be really bad news. That is, if it were not old news. This was last year’s problem, well reported in the national media. Apparently, GAO analysts prefer to make headlines rather than to read them.
The issue was addressed when the program was restructured last year. It was recognized then that there was a problem with meeting the target dates for software development. But action was taken to solve the problem. Over one billion dollars more was budgeted for software development. Lockheed Martin has since then spent some $200 million to stand up a software development facility. In addition it has hired nearly 200 software engineers to work the problem. Finally, five additional low-rate initial production aircraft have been designated as software test bed platforms. This will allow the program to do more software test, verification and validation in parallel.
The F-35 is the most software intensive airplane ever built. The pilot can multitask, moving seamlessly between aircraft operations, air-to-air combat, delivery of munitions against ground targets and performing as a sensor platform. So it is important that the software be on time and that it operate correctly. The GAO is correct in keeping an eye on this issue. But it also needs to be factually correct.
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