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'Agile' F-35 fighter software dev techniques failed to speed up supersonic jet deliveries

Watchdog bites Uncle Sam and Lockheed Martin over $14bn-and-counting efforts

Agile methodology has not succeeded in speeding up deliveries of onboard software for the F-35 fighter jet, a US government watchdog has warned in a new report.

The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) said in its annual report into F-35 design and development that software development practices within the F-35 Joint Project Office (JPO) and jet manufacturer Lockheed Martin were below par – and had hindered the supersonic stealth fighter's progress.

"The program's primary reliance on the contractor's monthly reports, often based on older data, has hindered program officials' timely decision making," said the GAO. "The program office has also not set software quality performance targets, inconsistent with another key practice. Without these targets, the program office is less able to assess whether the contractor has met acceptable quality performance levels."

The program office has also not set software quality performance targets, inconsistent with another key practice

The GAO recommended that Lockheed and the US Department of Defence both pull their socks up, sighing: "For over 20 years, we have consistently emphasized the need for organizations to collect and use data about program performance to help inform and measure organization operations and results."

Lockheed and the JPO adopted an Agile-style methodology that the US military branded C2D2, or Continuous Capability Development and Delivery. This has been less than stellar, though its intent was to allow iterative development of the jet's capabilities, rather than delivering an all-singing all-dancing aircraft all at once – and taking decades to do so. So far C2D2 has cost $14bn, a portion of which will have been paid by F-35 customers including the UK, which intends buying at least 48 of the jets to fly from its Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers.

Knock-on effects from these poor software development practices were very real. Ground-based simulators used for pilot training weren't a good enough representation of the real aircraft, the GAO said [PDF] in its annual report, while developers "routinely underestimated the amount of work needed" to develop new software loads for the world's most expensive supersonic stealth fighter.

US website Defense News reported that the F-35 JPO's plans to push half-yearly software updates for the F-35 fell into disarray after planned "increments" within those builds spiralled out of control.

While each build was supposed to consist of four "increments", the June 2020 edition came with no fewer than 10 – and contractors let slip to the watchdog that four of those "were to address software defects" instead of adding new functionality as promised.

October 2020's build had eight increments, of which four were purely bug-squashing items.

Separately from the GAO report, US magazine Aviation Week reported, citing its own sources, that a bug which would have disabled the radars on all F-35As came "uncomfortably close to being released" to the US Air Force early last year.

In domestic F-35 news, the UK seems set to slash its order for 138 jets as defence chiefs start eyeing up domestically built unmanned aircraft instead. ®

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