WASHINGTON – The F-35 program aims to use agile software development practices to ensure that the Joint Strike Fighter quickly receives new code to counter emerging threats. However, new software production is still lagging behind schedule, the US Government Accountability Office said on a March 18 report.
In 2018, the joint program office F-35 announced a plan to release small increments of software code every six months – a model called Continuous Capability Development and Delivery.
Under C2D2, each software drop should consist of four code increments. This is to enable the F-35 prime contractor Lockheed Martin to develop software in the first phase and then test it for errors, fix it and test it again before the software is transferred to operating nozzles.
However, recent software releases included more than four steps to help the company fix bugs that were repeatedly discovered during the coding process, the GAO found.
“For example, the software shipped in June 2020 was 10 increments – six more than originally planned,” the GAO stated in its report. “Lockheed Martin officials said two of these increments were added to improve functionality, sophistication, and avoid delays in the next software drop. However, according to contractor representatives, four of the added steps concerned software bugs. “
Another software drop, originally scheduled for October 2020, involved eight steps in total, with four modules added to fix bugs, Lockheed officials told GAO. This release has been postponed until April 2021.
There are several reasons why software releases fall behind schedule. For one thing, during the first increment, Lockheed does not develop code for all of the required functions as originally planned. The company said this was due to “late contract awards preventing them from doing new work, supply chain issues and recent workforce capacity issues due to COVID-19 restrictions,” the report said.
Lockheed also struggled to identify software defects before releasing new code for operational F-35s. A third party analysis found that 23 percent of all errors (a total of 656 errors) were discovered after delivery between December 2017 and September 2020.
The program risks another disruption to its flight schedule as the F-35 undergoes Block 4 modernization efforts that began in 2018 to add new hardware and software to the aircraft. According to a review by the Undersecretary of State for Defense Research and Technology, future software outages planned for 2023-2025 are “more complex” than current versions, while the overall plan is “high risk,” the report said.
“Program officials said the program is currently reviewing the feasibility of its schedule, and DOT&E officials told us the program office is considering setting longer time frames for any software failure, such as extending it to 1 year. However, simply adding time to the development cycle may not fully address the challenges of the program, ”said the GAO, using an acronym for the director’s office for operational testing and evaluation.
“Without a software development schedule indicating how much work can be done in each step based on historical performance, the program office will continue to experience delays in the development of Block 4 and features will continue to be postponed to later software drops.” added the watchdog.
Ultimately, these delays could result in cost spikes and features being out of date before they ever hit the airline.
Finally, GAO recommended that the F-35 program office implement tools to automate data collection in the context of the software development process so that the program can more easily determine whether Lockheed is meeting performance goals.
Lt. Gen. Eric Fick, head of the government’s F-35 Joint Program Office, said the Pentagon has agreed with GAO’s recommendations and is working to improve the aircraft’s software factory.
“The ability to stay one step ahead of our opponents in high-end combat is inextricably linked to our ability to deliver high quality software to the F-35 air system at high speed. These days, software quality lacks the mark that leads to increased costs and delays, ”he said in a statement.
Lockheed has also taken steps to review the F-35 software development and set up an independent review team in the fall of 2020 to conduct a program-wide assessment of the aircraft’s software capabilities. “This team, comprised of representatives from the JPO, Lockheed Martin, the US government and industry, has made significant strides in identifying and managing ways to bring quality products to the F-35 customer on time and within the Budgets can be provided, “explained the company.
The GAO report echoed previous concerns from the Pentagon’s independent weapons tester, who in 2020 questioned whether the program office would be able to get new software releases out on schedule.
“The current Continuous Capability Development and Delivery (C2D2) process has not been able to keep pace with the planned addition of new capacity increments,” wrote Robert Behler, Director of Operational Test and Evaluation for the Pentagon. “Software changes that were designed to introduce new functions or fix defects often led to stability problems and impaired other functions.”
As the F-35 grapples with software development challenges, it continues to struggle to integrate the F-35 with the Joint Simulation Environment (JSE) – an important simulation technology that F-35 pilots use to face complex and sophisticated threats That would be impossible to repeat in live training events.
The F-35 must complete 64 scenarios in the JSE to complete operational testing and make a full production decision. While the Pentagon was hoping to complete JSE development and conduct those tests by August 2020, “test officials identified technical problems with the simulator,” according to the GAO.
In response to questions from Defense News on these issues, JPO spokeswoman Laura Seal said the challenges include: “Integrating high-fidelity models from multiple external organizations to create a comprehensive, realistic threat environment. … Complex interactions between the F-35 and this synthetic battlefield are also challenging and require significant development, testing and verification activities. “
As a result, the Pentagon has postponed a full production decision – originally planned for December 2019 and then postponed to early 2021 – to a date yet to be determined.
The program office does not plan to reschedule full-rate production until a revised acquisition program baseline is completed that sets a modified schedule for the program that the Pentagon’s senior acquisitions officer must then approve, Seal said.
The program office also supports an independent assessment of JSE’s technical baseline, which informs the F-35’s overall plan and sets a target date for completing operational tests, Seal said.
“DOT&E employees said they did not consider postponing additional testing or the testing requirements required for their final report,” said the GAO.