Electronic Weapons: Shot Down By The Hidden Flaw


October 4, 2010: The U.S. Air Force is facing growing problems with software reliability for aircraft. This is largely the result of so much more software being used to operate these airplanes. For example, flight testing of the F-35 was halted on October 1st, so that the software could be fixed. It was believed that a software error was causing fuel pumps to malfunction. The F-35 source code comprises about 8 million lines of code (a file about two gigabytes in size, that could easily fit on a thumb drive). Most modern PC operating systems have source code ten or more times as large, but PC bugs don't cause a $100 million aircraft to crash. Creating flawless software is very difficult, and expensive. It gets more complicated as the amount of software involved increases. This is an aircraft vulnerability that gets little media attention, yet it is very much present, and a growing threat at that.

Then there's the security risks. The contractors who created the F-35 software, did not let the source code anywhere near the Internet, to ensure that Chinese hackers did not grab it. But this software is only valuable if it works. In terms of software, the F-35 is more advanced than the F-22, and has three times as much source code, and even more chances of something going wrong. Source code is the plain text version of the code that is written by programmers, and then turned into the 0s and 1s by a compiler program so that it can operate inside the dozens of microprocessors inside the aircraft.

Software used in combat aircraft has grown enormously over the last two decades. The F-15 appeared in the late 1970s, and had electronics using only a few thousand lines of code. By 1995, upgrades and new equipment had increased this to over 100,000 lines of code. Ten years later the U.S. Air Force began replacing the CPUs (Central Processing Units, the "brains" of a computer) in their F-15E fighter-bombers. The ones being replaced were vintage 1988. Since then, CPUs had become fifty (50) times faster. Since 1995, the CPUs had become even faster.

Naturally, the new CPUs make everything work faster on the F-15E, and allows the aircraft's electronics to do many things it could not do with its original equipment. It's a common problem with warplane electronics, for upgrades to come slowly. It's just not a matter of plugging in a new CPU. Many other new chips are required, and the software has to be rewritten to take advantage of the new capabilities. This takes time, and a lot of money and testing. The air force is reluctant to invest in these upgrades, because money is always tight, and buying new aircraft, or training, often are seen as better investments. The way around this is to build more recent aircraft so that they can be more easily, and cheaply, upgraded with more powerful electronic components. But in the end, if you want better performance these days, you need more software that will take advantage of the new hardware, but it's easier to create reliable hardware, than it is for software.

The older F-15C has also received upgraded electronics, and new software to run it. The add-on equipment, like targeting pods, can easily double the amount of software needed to make the aircraft an effective weapon. But minor flaws in that software can make the aircraft much less deadly, or keep it from even taking off.





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