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F-35 to 2070? Air Force says 'software' will decide who wins future wars

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  File photo - F-35A Lightning II aircraft receive fuel from a KC-10 Extender from Travis Air Force Base, Calif., July 13, 2015, during a flight from England to the U.S. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Madelyn Brown)

File photo - F-35A Lightning II aircraft receive fuel from a KC-10 Extender from Travis Air Force Base, Calif., July 13, 2015, during a flight from England to the U.S. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Madelyn Brown)

Flying the F-35 all the way to 2070, blocking enemy missiles in mid-flight and using AI to quickly assist precision-guided weapons are all technologies which increasingly hinge upon rapid software development --- inspiring Air Force leaders to say “software” will determine who wins future wars.

“In a future war we could be changing software every day as a necessary factor for winning,” Dr. Will Roper, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, recently told reporters.

This modern phenomenon, wherein weapons systems are more computer-reliant, fosters a complex two-fold dynamic; it brings unprecedented combat advantages, yet also requires cyber-hardening networks and accelerating software modernization.

Software upgrades, for instance, can give radar systems new threat information, provide improved seeker guidance for weapons and massively shorten sensor-to-shooter time by connecting otherwise disconnected networks and weapons platforms to one another in real-time.

Such technical advances, relying upon fast-emerging new computer algorithms, exponentially increase commanders’ ability to both see threats and attack enemies. All of this is fortified by growing applications of computer automation and AI.

“AI lives on getting software right,” Roper said.

While explaining the Air Force’s effort to sharpen strategy on “agile software development,” Roper cited a handful of fast-moving acquisition programs being infused with a faster software modernization plan.

Using computer processing speed and real-time analytics, AI systems can instantly access millions of pieces of information, search for trends, draw parallels and provide otherwise disparate information sources to commanders in an organized, immediate fashion.

Such technological progress informs the technical basis for the F-35’s “sensor fusion,” wherein combat-relevant data from different sensors are synthesized for the pilot on a single screen.

The Air Force is looking to build upon what service scientists have described to Warrior Maven as early iterations of AI.

Alongside sensors, networks and weapons, software is also indispensable to the hugely impactful areas of sustainment, logistics and condition-based maintenance.

These areas, woven together as elements of focus, are the foundation upon which the Air Force seeks to build the F-35’s ability to fly until 2070.

The longevity, continued relevance and technical superiority of the F-35, pilots and weapons developers say, rests entirely on the extent to which it can sustain fast-paced modernization.

At the same time, keeping the F-35 as the world’s premier 5th-generation fighter is not without a wide array of challenges. Lawmakers, members of the military and concerned observers have raised questions regarding cost challenges with the aircraft and the expected sustainment difficulties associated with it.

The Air Force’s plan to address this, Roper explained, is to implement new pathfinder pilot programs for the F-35, based upon accelerated software modernization. He cited new efforts with the F-35’s Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS) and the aircraft’s Mission Data Files threat library as areas of initial focus.​

Quickly upgrading ALIS, a system which has had developmental complexities in recent years, can lower costs, improve the supply chain and greatly reduce the logistical burden.

Efficiently identifying anticipated points of potential mechanical failure not only improves mission security but streamlines aircraft repairs and sustainment.

Keeping upgrades aligned with new software and AI applications is aimed at ensuring the aircraft keeps flying and retains a technical advantage.

“ALIS is something we can work on to prove we can do a software drop every couple of weeks or every couple of months,” Roper said.

Often referred to as Condition-Based Maintenance, the idea is to expedite the process through which engines, propulsion systems, sensors and avionics may need to be maintained and improved.

Utilizing ever-evolving forms of machine-learning, AI programs can compare new data with existing historical information to almost instantly identify systems in need of attention. Such an apparatus also provides the mechanisms through which rapid modernization can take place.

When supplied with information, machine-learning programs enable computers to discern nuances, context and relevant patterns as a way to generate immediate breakthrough progress.

This kind of thing can give pilots real-time information about an aircraft failure or other pressing information, such as enemy locations.

Another application of software modernization can enable fast upgrades to an F-35’s Mission Data Files. As an existing database of established threats in specific geographical regions, Mission Data Files help pilots quickly identify enemy aircraft by comparing sensor information against an existing data base.

Air Force engineers have been working on software upgrades to the F-35’s Mission Data Files at Eglin AFB, Fla. These kinds of rapid upgrades, entirely reliant upon new software, will enable pilots to quickly identify new enemy aircraft as they emerge - such as a Chinese J-20 5th-generation stealth fighter.

The Air Force is already working with DoD and industry partners to integrate AI-driven software into F-16s and E-3 Sentry AWACS surveillance aircraft, industry developer said.

C3 IoT is partnering with the Air Force and the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx) to aggregate and organize structured and unstructured data sets in a unified cloud-based data system, company statements said.

This kind of real-time Condition-Based Maintenance, using onboard sensors to collect maintenance data and perform onboard analytics, combat-essential information can be provided to pilots in a nearly instantaneous manner, C3 IoT developers told Defense Systems several months ago.

Data can be transmitted through things like LINK 16 in real-time from onboard sensors or be downloaded upon return, C3 I0T developers said. They also say such applications are extremely relevant when it comes to tracking things like engine or propulsion systems.

Finding sufficient expertise in large numbers of people, retaining the best and brightest and ensuring there are enough maintainers to see this through is also a big focus of the effort, Roper said.

“We are making resources of people available and actively looking at opportunities to tackle this development. I am trying to make sure that talent is available to help. This can include getting talent outside,” Roper said.

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