PARIS --- The unilateral decision by the United States to locate all F-35 software laboratories on its territory, and to manage the operation and sustainment of the global F-35 fleet from its territory, has introduced vulnerabilities that are only beginning to emerge.
The biggest risk is that, since the F-35 cannot operate effectively without permanent data exchanges with its software labs and logistic support computers in the United States, any disruption in the two-way flow of information would compromise its effectiveness.
All F-35 aircraft operating across the world will have to update their mission data files and their Autonomic Logistic Information System (ALIS) profiles before and after every sortie, to ensure that on-board systems are programmed with the latest available operational data and that ALIS is kept permanently informed of each aircraft’s technical status and maintenance requirements. ALIS can, and has, prevented aircraft taking off because of an incomplete data file.
Given that the United States hopes to sell hundreds of F-35s to allies in Europe, Asia and Australia, the volume of data that must travel to and from the United States is gigantic, and any disruption in Internet traffic could cripple air forces as the F-35 cannot operate unless it is logged into, and cleared by, ALIS.
For example, “Mission data load development and testing is a critical path to combat capability,” Pentagon OT&E director Michael Gilmore said in his fiscal 2014 report. “Accuracy of threat identification and location depend on how well the mission data loads are optimized to perform in ambiguous operational environments.”
Updating and uploading mission data loads depends on a functioning Internet, and as Wired.com noted in an Oct. 29 story, “undersea Internet cables are surprisingly vulnerable.” It quoted Nicole Starosielski, a media scholar at New York University, as saying that “people would be surprised to know that there are a little over 200 systems that carry all of the internet traffic across the ocean, and these are by and large concentrated in very few areas. The cables end up getting funneled through these narrow pressure points all around the globe.”
Recent activity by Russian ships near crucial undersea cables has added to concerns about the vulnerability of Internet, as recently illustrated by the New York Times, which noted that “Russian submarines and spy ships are aggressively operating near the vital undersea cables that carry almost all global Internet communications, raising concerns among some American military and intelligence officials that the Russians might be planning to attack those lines in times of tension or conflict.”
The fear is that an “ultimate Russian hack on the United States could involve severing the fiber-optic cables at some of their hardest-to-access locations to halt the instant communications on which the West’s governments, economies and citizens have grown dependent,” the article said.
Whatever the other repercussions, such an event would severely limit the ability of the world’s F-35 fighters to fly – due to a loss of ALIS link – and to operate effectively, as their fighting ability would disappear if their software and mission data files could not be updated.
No Internet, No F-35 Operations
In a recent article, Aviation Week explored how F-35 operators “are being compelled to fund $150 million software laboratories, based in the U.S. and almost 50% staffed by U.S. personnel, that generate data crucial to the fighter’s ability to identify new radio-frequency threats.”
It noted that the MDFs “are twice as large as the equivalent data load in the F-22,” and that there are 12 packages covering different regions.
The JSF program is establishing two centers to produce and update MDFs, at Eglin AFB, Florida, and NAS Point Mugu, California. The latter will support Japanese and Israeli F-35s, Aviation Week reported, while an Australia/U.K. facility and a laboratory to support Norway and Italy will be established at Eglin. (Click here for a description of the Point Mugu reprograming lab.)
Given that the ALIS mainframe is located at Fort Worth, Texas, operating the F-35 will require three very large data conduits to and from these locations, again using Internet cables as the volume of data is too great for satellite transmission.
In fact, if the F-35 performs as advertised, it should gather very argue amounts of tactical data during each mission – data that it will have to transmit to the software labs in the US so they can be used to update the mission data files, adding another large volume data flow in both directions.
In addition, according to the OT&E FY 2014 report, 18,049 Joint Technical Data (JTD) modules have been developed for the aircraft, 3,123 for its engine and 1,775 for Supportable Low Observables; all are required for ALIS to operate as designed. While no information is available as to the data volumes involved, it seems logical to assume it is considerable.
The OT&E report mentions that “Maintenance downloads using the ground data receptacle … usually takes an hour, delaying access to maintenance information.” This is an indication of the data volume involved, especially as the upgraded ALIS runs on a standard Windows 7 operating system.
This was confirmed by Lt Gen Christopher Bogdan, the head of the F-35 Joint Program Office, in recent Congressional testimony.
“Currently, the pilot debrief timeline is too long as it takes approximately 1.5 hours to download a 1.5 hour flight. This is unacceptable and [we] are in the process of fielding an improved system [which] will decrease the timeline to download mission data by a factor of 8, meaning a 1.5 hour flight will be downloaded in about fifteen minutes,” he told the Subcommittee on Tactical Air and Land Forces of the House Armed Services Committee on Oct 21.