Software Code Source of Tension for F-35 SalesDecember 17, 2009
A dogfight over software is intensifying as the Pentagon reaffirmed that it will not share with partner countries the sensitive code that controls Lockheed Martin's F-35 radar-evading jet fighter, according to an article published by Reuters.
Britain, which funded about $2 billion of the F-35, is among eight countries that co-financed the system. Nonetheless, no country will receive the source code or the vital electronics that control everything from weapons integration to radar to flight dynamics, according to the article.
The jet, known as the Joint Strike Fighter, can switch between air-to-ground and air-to-air missions in mid-flight, thanks to some eight million lines of code. The United States will provide a way for countries to upgrade the software as necessary without revealing the source code, Jon Schreiber, the head of the program's international affairs, told Reuters. "Nobody is happy with it completely, but everybody's satisfied and understands," he said.
Israel, which is interested in buying the fighter, has proposed technology transfer as part of a possible purchase of seven F-35s. But that is unlikely, says Eric K. Clemons, a professor of operations and information management at Wharton. If F-35 software is shipped in its source form, other countries might try to reverse engineer and replicate the capabilities of the F-35 in far more detail than would be possible from observations of the plane in flight. Clemons says they could even try to jam or hack an “enemy” F-35. "While [jamming or hacking it] is unlikely, the first two are near certainties," he said. "Not only will the U.S., but also the UK, have a stronger defense if the software for the F-35 remains unavailable."
Withholding the source code also protects hardware vendors from parties that clone the hardware system. For example, hardware vendors selling specific systems to China frequently provide only object code and not source code, which ensures that software must be upgraded or replaced regularly.
"This is done to prevent cloning," says Clemons, adding that if a buyer illegally recreates an entire system by reproducing parts, the software shuts down. "The buyer needs to purchase an appropriate number of licenses, not merely the licenses for the number of hardware units legally purchases but also for the illegal clones."