Software Upgradeability and the F-35 Global Enterprise: The Australian Case


In article published by Australian Defence and Business Review on their January-February 2019 issue, Andrew McLaughlin provided a look at how to think about the F-35 and its modernization process.

The original title: “Building Data: Inside the RAAF’s F-35 Mission Data Programming Capability”

So, the first F-35s are here, the validation and verification (V&V) process is underway, training of RAAF pilots and maintenance staff is accelerating in the US and at home, the sustainment system is spinning up, and the classic Hornets will soon be starting to retire.

But this is where any commonality with the introduction of previous air combat generations ends. For the F-35, rather than undergoing perhaps two or three upgrades during its service life, avionics and sensor technology hardware refreshes will be introduced every few years, and software data load (SDL) and other software updates will be uploaded as often as every few months for the duration of its projected 30+ year service life.

Another key difference for the F-35 is the huge amount of information required to be included in the mission data files (MDF) in order to maintain a technological and tactical edge over potential rivals. This data includes but is not restricted to sensor performance, fusion upgrades, operational techniques, and electronic threat library refinements. It is this data which is the key to the F-35s ability to perform effective and accurate Combat Identification (CID).

And it is this last piece of the puzzle which is arguably one of the most difficult and sensitive, not only due to the security aspects, but also from a sovereign capability viewpoint.

One of the key elements of the F-35’s very low observability (VLO) characteristics is its organic ability to control the electronic spectrum around it when operating in or near hostile airspace.

Most of the recorded operations by low observable aircraft since the 1991 Gulf War have been supported by dedicated electronic warfare support aircraft. From the F-117’s debut over Baghdad, to F-117 and B-2 operations over the Balkans and Afghanistan, to the F-22’s recent participation in strikes over Syria, EA-6B Prowler, EC-130 Compass Call or EA-18G Growler EW/EA systems have been allocated key support roles for these missions.

Even earlier, during the Vietnam War and later the Cold War, the seemingly untouchable Mach 3+ Lockheed A-12 Oxcart and USAF SR-71A Blackbird missions over North Vietnam and along the borders of the Soviet Union and other points of interest were supported by US Navy EC-121, EA-3 and EA-6A/B, USAF EB-66 and RC-135, and other EW aircraft.

All of these support aircraft added an extra layer of electronic protection over the already low observable shaping, mission profiles and organic EW capabilities of these stealthy strike, fighter and ISR aircraft, further assuring mission success. They also harvested unfriendly electronic data for later analysis and incorporation into electronic warfare threat libraries for future operations.

But just as western air combat aircraft and electronic warfare systems are increasing in sophistication and capability, so are the threats they will inevitably face. And apart from the technological leaps, one of the biggest advances in electronic warfare in the last couple of decades has been the integration of national intelligence agencies with airpower.

No longer are airpower assets and their signals (SIGINT), communications (COMINT) and electronic intelligence (ELINT) restricted to military use only, they are now part of a much wider intelligence enterprise.

The all-digital F-35 is so much more capable of providing intelligence to this enterprise than previous analogue systems. The aircraft’s ability to fuse data from its sensors, not just for the presentation to the pilot but so it can better discriminate the huge amount of data from other electronic ‘noise’ in today’s battlespace, is a key capability provided by the aircraft’s sophisticated Northrop Grumman AN/ASQ-242 communications, navigation and identification (CNI) system which is integrated with its BAE Systems AN/ASQ-239 EW suite.

The integration of the ASQ-239 with the F-35’s CNI is a key capability discriminator of 5th generation aircraft, when compared to the ‘federated’ EW systems used on 3rd and 4th generation aircraft which require complex interfaces to present isolated information on existing cockpit displays, and lack any real integration with other aircraft sensors. As a result, the capability to ‘fuse’ information in 5th generation aircraft significantly reduces the processing burden on the pilot, giving them more time to fight the fight.

BAE Systems says the ASQ-239 protects the F-35 from current and emerging surface and airborne threats through fully integrated radar warning, targeting support, and self-protection. It says it provides a 360-degree field of view of the battlespace that provides the pilot with maximum situational awareness, helping to identify, geo-locate, monitor, analyse, and rapidly respond to threats.

Lockheed Martin’s website claims the aircraft has an EW capability “many multiples that of any legacy fighter,” adding that, “The F-35’s survivability, electronic attack, electronic protection, situational awareness, advanced targeting and unprecedented combat ID will make the entire air wing better.”

But an EW system is only as good as the data library from which it draws its information. While the ASQ-239 may be able to provide information on threats to the pilot faster than previous systems, the old adage of ‘rubbish in – rubbish out’ remains as pertinent today as it was with older analogue systems.

To this end, dedicated data reprogramming laboratories have been established by the US, partner nations, and FMS customers to generate mission data files that will ensure the F-35 EW system’s data library is not only of sufficient fidelity for its advanced systems, but that it remains tactically relevant for the F-35’s life of type.

There are several reprogramming labs (RL) for the F-35 for which the various partner nations and FMS operators are patrons, and these are generally aligned with levels of capability or access. The US maintains its own RL at Eglin AFB in Florida, and an FMS customer lab has been established at Naval Air Warfare Center (NAWC) Pt Mugu, Ventura County north of Los Angeles.

Australia has teamed with two other non-US ‘five-eyes’ JSF program partners to establish the Australia Canada UK Reprogramming Lab (ACURL). The three nations share common geo-political and strategic interests, and are generally subject to similar US export and security requirements. And while Canada has paused its F-35 acquisition pending a competitive evaluation of other air combat capabilities, it remains an ACURL partner for the time being.

“There’s a number of different laboratories being established,” Australia’s JSF Program Manager, AVM Leigh Gordon told ADBR. “There’s one for the Norwegians and the Italians (the NIRL), there’s the US complex (USRL), and there’s the ACURL. There’s also a lab at Point Mugu that looks after FMS customers and other partners who haven’t built or contributed to their own sovereign reprogramming laboratories.”

The ACURL hardware was initially established at Lockheed Martin’s Fort Worth factory in Texas, but is in the final stages of being moved to a purpose-designed 2,300 sqm facility adjacent to the USRL at Eglin AFB in Florida and which comes under the USAF’s 53rd Electronic Warfare Group (EWG).

“The ACURL has two meanings – one is the building and the name on the building. But it’s also the capability,” JSF Division Project Director Support Systems, GPCAPT Guy Adams told us.

“The reprogramming capability consists of hardware and software tools to build the MDFs, and additional hardware and software to test the performance of the MDFs once they’re produced,” GPCAPT Adams said. “It also includes the people – that capability will consist of up to about 115 people by the time we get to IOC (initial operational capability) which includes Australian plus Royal Air Force and Royal Navy personnel as well. It also includes US partner support complex personnel and a number of US contractor personnel.”

The hardware component of the ACURL consists of radio frequency stimulators and simulators, as well as actual aircraft hardware that can inject threats to test how mission data files will respond using hardware-in-the-loop testing procedures. While no date has publicly been set for IOC, it is planned to be later this year.

“The ACURL is an absolute joint arrangement between us and the UK – we are tied at the hip to the UK,” explained GPCAPT Adams. “The ACURL is jointly managed and operated by Australia and the UK, with operators of both nations joined in dedicated reprogramming teams,” he added. “We really appreciate the experience the UK brings to the table from their reprogramming background.”

The mission data files generated by ACURL will be far more sophisticated than those used by 3rd and 4th generation combat aircraft.

“I won’t go too far into that, but with respect to the complexity associated with reprogramming this aircraft, compared to the EW library you would see in a classic Hornet or even a Super Hornet there are substantially more components to the JSF,” GPCAPT Adams explained.

“For the 5th generation, data is the king and shared awareness is the force multiplier,” he added. “In the mission data file space, it’s all about recognising that the real capability in the F-35 is the complex sensors and the way in which that information is integrated and passed not only to the pilot, but to other platforms as required.”

Much like the myriad of ingredients a chef needs to source to be prepared, cooked and presented for a menu in a Michelin star restaurant, the raw data for ACURL comes from a wide variety of sources. “They come from multiple sources, given the multiple parts of data that we need to program this aircraft,” said AVM Gordon.

“They come out of a number of intel shops, depending on whether it’s EW-related data or any of the other boxes that needed to be filled. But they generally come out of the intel shops both here in Australia, and from the five-eyes community.”

Fortunately for all F-35 operators, it hasn’t been necessary to start with an empty pantry for the Michelin star ACURL. Data that has been gleaned over decades for previous generations of air combat capabilities such as the classic and Super Hornet, can also be integrated with the F-35’s EW library. “The legacy data can be used and what we’re finding is it’s effective, it works,” AVM Gordon said. “But the F-35 would like more detail, so to speak.”

And it is the ACURL that provides that higher level of detail. In the past the ADF’s Joint Electronic Warfare Operational Support Unit (JEWOSU) – which is now part of the Edinburgh-based Air Warfare Centre – has been tasked with developing EW data files for the ADF, and this will continue.

“From an organisational perspective, the Australian people that work at ACURL will also belong to the Air Warfare Centre,” explained GPCAPT Adams. “So, ACURL does for F-35 what JEWOSU does for the remainder of the ADF platforms, but they work for the same organisation.”

“Whilst outside of the JSF Program of Record, one of the other aspects of the mission data capability that we’ve been working on is the Ghosthawk tool set,” said AVM Gordon. “Ghosthawk is a tool to allow us to better manage intelligence data, and helps us get it into the right format in a way that it can feed into things like ACURL. However, Ghosthawk is intended to be entirely platform agnostic with an ability to support a wide range of ADF platforms as well as the JSF.

“It’s not just having the data, it’s got to be in the right spot in the data base in the right order to be able to be sucked up by the next step in the system,” he added. “JEWOSU already has a database, and Ghosthawk will replace that with a far more ‘5th gen’ paradigm. The current database is very ‘mandraulic’, and limited in the data types it supports.

“Ghosthawk will provide the ability to store digital models of various threats and responses. The level of specificity that this whole system allows us to bring to the game, makes that data absolutely critical when it comes to joint warfighting with coalition partners.”

The installation of the ACURL hardware in the loop test facility at Eglin AFB is due to be completed at time of writing, after which the lab will be integrated and tested, and the ACURL staff will commence their training on the new systems. Following that, a verification and validation program will be conducted to ensure the ACURL can meet the operational rate of effort requirement of the UK and Australia. IOC is scheduled for the second half of 2019.

The five-eyes arrangement and Australia and the UK’s agility provides an opportunity for the ACURL to contribute better ways of managing and presenting mission data files to the wider JSF enterprise.

“That’s a good point, and that’s one of the areas where we’re already contributing,” GPCAPT Adams said. “We are obviously learning a lot from the USRL and the people that are there. But we’re also feeding back into that system. We have a couple of subject matter experts who are probably leading edge in terms of how to reprogram a JSF, and we’re using those individuals to provide training courses or to work with the USRL in what we’re calling the Mission Data Partnership at Eglin.”

In closing, AVM Gordon says the work being done by his team and those at ACURL will feed back into the wider air force as part of its transformation.

“Through using tool sets like Ghosthawk and having it fed through central organisations like JEWOSU, allows us to be able share the intelligence and appropriately update what would be the equivalent of mission data files as required by those platforms,” he explained. “One of the priorities for JSF Division and the integrated project team here is about helping air force lead that transformation, and I think this is clearly a Jericho activity.

“We’re starting to understand what it means to truly be relied on and driven by and monopolising the data that’s available through that 5th generation transformation,” he added. “And we need to be helping air force to educate the rest of the ADF about, ‘what does it mean to be in that sort of game?’ ACURL is just a really great example of what does it mean to be 5th generation.”

And just like the aircraft itself, the ACURL will never truly achieve a full operational capability (FOC) under which a solid line can be drawn, as the capability will continue to evolve throughout the system’s life of type.

“ACURL is one of the elements of the F-35 capability that needs to be kept in step with the capability as it grows,” AVM Gordon said. “We talked about the lab that’s being delivered in IOC in the second half of this year, but the ACURL will be on a journey, and will need to be upgraded as the aircraft gets modified and evolves as well.

“When Guy talked about us providing input to requirements for how to operate and upgrade the ACURL itself, it’s true,” he said. “We are already starting to look about and say, ‘what are the logical upgrade points for the ACURL, what are going to be the requirements for those?’”

“Indeed, some of the requirements that we’re developing that are good for the ACURL, are similarly good for other reprogramming labs. But the efficiency and the timeliness and the turnaround of the product is one of those things we want to get better at, so it’s a continuous improvement type activity.”

Even though Australia is ultimately responsible for its portion of the ACURL to ensure it stays in lockstep with the capability, AVM Gordon sees this as a collaborative opportunity.

“We ultimately own it and are responsible for it, but we want to do it in an integrated way with the upgrade of the capability through the co-operative program,” he said in closing. “We will make sure the appropriate requirements get generated and then are met through the upgrade process.

“When the co-operative program generates JSF upgrades to the aircraft, we expect them to consider what needs to happen to the RLs as well. That will drive and guide us in the hardware and software requirements we need to make for those RLs, and when we need to make provisions for that as part of our plan.”