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The Pentagon and Lockheed Are Fighting Over Who Really Owns the F-35’s Buggy Computers

The Pentagon and Lockheed Are Fighting Over Who Really Owns the F-35’s Buggy Computers

Sebastien Roblin

Security, Americas

More bad news for the trillion-dollar stealth fighter jet?

The U.S. military sees the Lockheed F-35 Lightning as representing a new paradigm of air warfare. The new tactical jet fighter controversially trades in some of the raw agility of preceding fourth-generation jet fighters in favor of capabilities emphasizing stealth, and reliance upon networked computers and powerful long-range sensors and missiles.

But the F-35 Lightning also represents a new business paradigm—one in which the jets are offered more and more as a service than as a physical product, with manufacturer Lockheed Martin retaining exclusive rights to modify much of the aircraft’s critical mission and ground-based software.

Earlier, while attempting to persuade Turkey not to purchase Russian surface-to-air missiles, the United States even reportedly threatened that it could cut off software support for any F-35 delivered to Turkey, rendering them virtually unusable.

Of course, maintenance, training, and spare parts contracts have for decades meant that jet fighters amounted to lucrative long-term revenue streams for their manufacturers. But the F-35 advances this paradigm dramatically in that Lockheed retain exclusive rights to modify its operating software, a fact which has not sat well not only with foreign importers but even the U.S. military. 

Only Israel has received permission to install an overarching software shell “on top” of the jet’s computer in its customized F-35I fighters. Still, some will argue deeper privatization of jet fighter operations is unobjectionable if it delivers services more cheaply and efficiently than the military. But that may not be the case in this instance. The F-35’s ground-based ALIS logistical system, intended to streamline reporting and implement predictive maintenance, has for years remained buggy to the point of dysfunctionality—requiring constant manual inputs and workarounds when automated systems failed to do what they were supposed to do.

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