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Video Above: F-35s to Europe

By Kris Osborn - President & Editor-In-Chief, Warrior Maven

Identifying a Chinese or Russian 5th-generation jet from safe stand-off ranges, ensuring a smooth and successful “glide slope” landing onto a carrier deck, merging otherwise disparate pools of information into a single organized, integrated picture for pilots and quickly integrating new, paradigm-changing air-dropped weapons are all capabilities now fundamental to the operation of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

F-35s - Flying Computer

These factors help explain why the F-35 is often referred to as a “flying computer,” alongside being more generally known as a high-speed, stealthy and maneuverable multi-role attack fighter. Much, if not most, of the jet’s advanced performance is made possible by advanced computing, something easily overlooked or even eclipsed by the jet's other, more visible and well-known attributes.

While many F-35 missions and operations of course directly pertain to a “kinetic” kill, attack or combat engagement, they are all largely enabled by computer technology.

F-35A

Arctic Lightning Air Show 2021 - Eielson AFB, AlaskaLockheed Martin Aeronautics Corporation - Fort Worth - Mikaela Maschmeier

Sensor Fusion

The jet’s well-known “sensor fusion” which relies upon an advanced, AI-like ability to gather, distill, integrate and present vast amounts of otherwise overwhelming data is enabled by computing. 

This means infrared and EO/IR sensor data, navigational and terrain specifics, weapons guidance technology and even EW information are all compiled, analyzed in relation to one another and presented to pilots in an integrated single picture. F-35 computing also enables its sensors to complete rapid threat identification and attack planning at safer, undetected stand-off ranges by bouncing incoming data off of its Mission Data Files database library cataloging known threats.

F-35A Pilot

F-35A Arrival at RAF Fairford

Software Drop

F-35 computing also brings the jet’s crucial “software drop” updates to fruition, an incremental upgrade process which continuously adds new weapons interfaces, improved sensing and high-speed AI-enabled information processing. 

The “fourth” software drop, for example, integrates the paradigm-changing Stormbreaker bomb into the jet, introducing unprecedented attack ranges up to 40 nautical miles, course-correcting two-way datalinks and all-weather targeting technology.

Weapons

Computing also plays a key role when it comes to precision targeting as software upgrades can, in many cases, improve air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons performance. This is particularly true in the case of the F-35s AIM-120 and AIM-9X weapons which have received flight path and guidance technology enhancements through the integration of new software.

File; F-35A conducts first live fire with AMRAAM

File; F-35A conducts first live fire with AMRAAM

Open Architecture

Much of this evolving process or ongoing iteration of software upgrades to ensure continuous modernization, is made possible through the use of common technical standards. Often referred to as “open architecture,” the intent is to engineer a system with interoperable IP Protocol standards such that new technologies can be quickly integrated without needing to essentially “re-construct” the aircraft’s computing infrastructure.

Video Above: F-35s vs China's Fighter Jets

This kind of cyber-reliant modernization trajectory for the F-35, intended to ensure the stealth jet retains its performance edge well into the 2070s and beyond, also needs to ensure that computer systems are sufficiently “hardened” against cyberattacks and intruders. 

While all of the F-35s advanced computing is naturally bringing unparalleled and potentially breakthrough systems to war in ways that may not have even been anticipated, added computer networking can also introduce new vulnerabilities. 

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Vulnerability

What if an F-35s computer was somehow “hacked,” derailed, denied service or simply fed wrong information? Pilots could be fed incorrect targets or given erroneous navigational detail. Also of great concern, what if weapons targeting were compromised as well?

Throughout all weapons systems generally, including the F-35, the advantages and challenges of increased computer reliability could be described as a dual-pronged phenomenon. 

Increased computer modernization, data sharing and pooled or organized streams of information can also potentially increase vulnerability. Are the unprecedented advantages afforded by advancing computing and software upgrades offset by an increased susceptibility to cyberattack? 

F-35

Lockheed Martin

Greater networking of combat nodes means an intruder could exact a large impact upon multiple systems by merely penetrating or compromising one platform, node or point of entry.

The need to safeguard F-35 computing is something that has been on the radar at the Pentagon for many years now. Interestingly, as far back as 2016, the Air Force was working intensely upon the need to “bake-in” cyber protections and resilience early in the developmental process of new weapons systems and emerging technologies. 

Former Air Force Chief Information Security Officer Peter Kim cited the F-35 in 2016 as a key example of how cybersecurity priorities and technologies needed to expand well beyond the realm of IT to incorporate large weapons systems. Speaking at an Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association event in December of 2016, Kim specifically cited the F-35 saying “we need to focus on cyber defense and cybersecurity beyond what we have traditionally done. Threats are changing, so how do we approach the domain of cyberspace beyond what we are thinking about with IT?”

By as soon as 2022, the Pentagon’s F-35 is expected to operate with an advanced on-board computing system intended to ensure optimal functionality, improve maintenance and sustainment by anticipating points of failure, monitor aircraft systems and help organize data.

F-35

Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company-Fort Worth-John E. Wilson M.Photog.Cr.ASP; Document Luke, AFB Trip; 

Alongside the more often discussed issues related to weaponry, stealth characteristics and combat capability, logistics, sustainment and conditioned-based maintenance factors are also of critical importance to the F-35. 

Operational Data Integrated Network (ODIN)

This is a key reason why the jet is now being upgraded with an advanced new computer system to replace its Autonomic Logistics Information System with a new, more-capable system called Operational Data Integrated Network (ODIN). ODIN, regarded as a follow-on upgrade to the at times technically challenged ALIS system, is slated to be fully operational by 2022.

Unlike its predecessor ALIS, ODIN may not be narrowly configured to purely perform maintenance functions but may also impact and improve aircraft information processing, management and transmission.

F-35

Luke AFB Code One Mission Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Photo by Angel DelCuet

As a high-speed, diagnostic computer system, ODIN will perform a number of critical functions. One of those is conditioned-based maintenance wherein onboard sensors and computers monitor flight systems such as engine rotations or cooling functions. ODIN will also examine the component health of on-board software and hardware throughout the aircraft such as avionics and other electronics.

Part of the concept with ODIN is to anticipate potential failures well before there is any kind of malfunction to both preserve the safety and survivability of the aircraft and also streamline the repair and maintenance process by getting ahead of the curve. Most of all, a diagnostic or predictive computer system of this kind can mitigate the risk of any kind of in-flight malfunction which could of course introduce operational challenges. 

Things like engine performance and reliability, electronics and cooling systems and weapons delivery technologies need to be monitored for health and maintenance. This streamlines the repair and maintenance process in a way that improves consistency of performance and also saves money by stabilizing the supply chain.

These things are crucial factors related to why the F-35 maintains a high mission-readiness rate and can quickly receive upgraded electronics or spare parts.

ODIN is the kind of system likely to impact the often less-recognized issue of F-35 sustainment. Questions pertaining to sustainment and operating costs of an F-35 persist, and yet the dynamic is very likely to be measurably improved with the arrival of ODIN which can ensure a level of predictability, planning and supply delivery sufficient to lower costs considerably. 

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest and President of Warrior Maven -the Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President

Kris Osborn, President of Warrior Maven, Center for Military Modernization