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Is the F-35’s Computer R2-D2 or HAL?

by Brendan McGarry on February 19, 2014

F-35A_maintainers

(Updates story with quotes from British Ministry of Defense spokeswoman beginning in eighth paragraph.)

A recent “60 Minutes” segment on the Defense Department’s F-35 focused on some of the high-tech features of the future fighter jet.

The Pentagon’s most advanced — and most expensive — acquisition program isn’t just another stealth aircraft with angled lines and sharp contours. It’s a “flying computer,” with 24 million lines of software code and a $500,000-plus helmet-mounted display that lets pilots see through the floor of the cockpit, according to the report.

“The helmet itself is Star Wars,” Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, said in an interview with David Martin, a national security correspondent for CBS News. “It’s what you see in a Star Wars movie.”

The system, which includes the custom-fitted helmet and a computer that receives data from the plane’s radar, cameras and antennae, will allow pilots to see an enemy aircraft at far greater distances than today’s fighters, officials touted on the program.

But like other parts of the plane, it doesn’t always work. When the news team visited the Marine Corps station in Yuma, Ariz., for instance, “a malfunction caused a scheduled flight to be scrubbed,” according to the report. And even when it does work, some pilots reportedly complain of being bombarded with too much information.

“The new … helmets are a hoot,” someone who identified himself as Neil Jones England wrote in a comment on the program’s website. “They made [Royal Air Force] pilots who used them dizzy, due to information overload. The night vision capability is awful, so pilots are flying virtually blind. We have swapped back to the helmet used by pilots who fly the Eurofighter.”

Endre Lunde, a spokesman for the Norwegian Ministry of Defense’s F-35 program office, vigorously disputed this claim, calling it “pure fabrication” and a “false rumor from the web.” In messages on Twitter, he wrote, “Eurofighter helmet has never been flown by anyone with #F35.” Norway is one of several countries buying the aircraft.

Sahar Rehman, a spokeswoman for the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense, which oversees the RAF, also rejected the claim, saying F-35 pilots only use the program’s second-generation helmet developed by Rockwell Collins Inc.

“The helmet used in the Eurofighter has never flown in an F-35 Fighter Jet and the UK has no plans to switch to using the Eurofighter helmet in F-35 Fighter Jets,” she said in an e-mailed statement.

The existing design was deemed “safe to use when conducting current and near term flying tasks,” though earlier in development it experienced “minor technical issues” that will be corrected in the third-generation helmet, according to the statement. The latter is expected to be ready in 2016, when the UK’s first operational squadron begins training, it stated.

Arguably the most interesting footage came in an extra segment, titled “Can the F-35 be Hacked?” — with another Star Wars reference. The correspondent compared the aircraft’s automated parts-replacement system, known as the Autonomic Logistics Information System, or ALIS (pronounced “Alice”), to the film’s beloved robot, R2-D2.

“Think of ALIS as the R2-D2 of the F-35,” Martin said, “because it really does control what the F-35 can do … She looks basically like a laptop computer and the pilot carries it out to the plane and sticks it in a slot right next to him in the cockpit and that contains all the information about the mission he’s going to fly.”

The servers that process the information take up an area the size of a shipping container, Martin said. When it was given to the military, however, the system had incorrect parts numbers in the database and, as a result, has erroneously recommended grounding the aircraft, he said.

“Even though the maintenance person knew what part he needed to put on it, ALIS was telling him, ‘No, you needed this other part,’” said Air Force Col. Rod Cregier, who runs the F-35 test program, during the taping. “ALIS thinks she knows everything about the airplane. She won’t let you do anything counter to herself.”

Marine Lt. Gen. Robert Schmidle agreed. “We need to have the ability to override the algorithms that are built into that system to determine whether an aircraft is safe to fly or not,” he said during the interview. “I didn’t design ALIS. I didn’t develop ALIS. I’m trying to do everything I can to make ALIS work for us.”

The rigidity of the system invited comparisons not to the friendly robot R2 of Star Wars, but to the more menacing machine HAL 9000 of the science-fiction flick, “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

In addition, the plane’s reliance on software and information technology makes it a target for hackers, Schmidle said. “It’s kind of like you using your smart phone to do banking,” he told Martin. “You are taking a greater risk than if you walk down to the teller at the bank and say, ‘Hey, this is what I wanted to do.”

While Schmidle said he’s “confident” that the military will be able to protect the aircraft’s data networks, he also acknowledged that “it’s not going to be easy and it’s not going to happen overnight.”

Stephen Welby, the Pentagon’s deputy assistant secretary of defense for systems engineering, is leading a 13-member team of independent experts in reviewing the F-35’s software problems. The work is expected to be completed next month.

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