Exclusive: U.S. to withhold F-35 fighter software codes

WASHINGTON Tue Nov 24, 2009 2:21pm EST

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States will keep to itself sensitive software code that controls Lockheed Martin Corp's new radar-evading F-35 fighter jet despite requests from co-development partners, a senior Pentagon program official said.

Access to the technology had been publicly sought by Britain, which had threatened to scrub plans to buy as many as 138 F-35s if it were unable to maintain and upgrade its fleet without U.S. involvement.

No U.S. partner is getting the so-called source code, the key to the plane's electronic brains, Jon Schreiber, who heads the program's international affairs, told Reuters in an interview Monday.

"That includes everybody," he said, acknowledging this was not entirely popular among core partners -- Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, Canada, Australia, Denmark and Norway.

The single-engine F-35 is in early stages of production. It is designed to escape radar detection and switch quickly between air-to-ground and air-to-air missions while still flying -- processes heavily dependent on its 8 million lines of onboard software code.

Schreiber said the United States had accommodated all of its partners' requirements, providing ways for them to upgrade projected F-35 purchases even without the keys to the software.

"Nobody's happy with it completely. but everybody's satisfied and understands," he said of withholding the code from partners and Israel, which also has sought the technology transfer as part of a possible purchase of up to 75 F-35s.

REPROGRAMMING FACILITY

Instead, the United States plans to set up a "reprogramming facility," probably at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, to further develop F-35-related software and distribute upgrades, Schreiber said.

Software changes will be integrated there "and new operational flight programs will be disseminated out to everybody who's flying the jet," he said.

Representatives of the British defense staff in Washington did not return telephone calls seeking comment. Britain has committed $2 billion to develop the F-35, the most of any U.S. partner.

In March 2006, Paul Drayson, then Britain's minister for defense procurement, told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee that Britain might quit the program if the United States withheld such things as the software code.

The issue rose to the top. In May 2006, then-President George W. Bush and then-Prime Minister Tony Blair announced that both governments had agreed "that the UK will have the ability to successfully operate, upgrade, employ, and maintain the Joint Strike Fighter such that the UK retains operational sovereignty over the aircraft."

HOLY GRAIL

The source code is "kind of the holy grail" for this, controlling everything from weapons integration to radar to flight dynamics, said Joel Johnson of TEAL Group, an aerospace consultancy in Fairfax, Virginia.

Lockheed Martin said all F-35 partners "recognize the complexity of the highly integrated F-35 software and the program plan to upgrade F-35 capabilities as an operational community."

"This enables the aircraft to remain at the cutting edge of combat capability while allowing the program to meet affordability objectives," John Kent, a company spokesman, said in an emailed statement.

Lockheed Martin, the Pentagon's No. 1 supplier by sales, projects it will sell up to 4,500 F-35s worldwide to replace its F-16 fighter and 12 other types of warplanes for 11 nations initially.

The United States eventually plans to spend roughly $300 billion over the next 25 years to buy a total of 2,443 F-35 models, its costliest arms acquisition.

Competitors include Boeing Co's F/A-18E/F SuperHornet; the Eurofighter Typhoon, made by a consortium of British, German, Italian and Spanish companies; Saab AB's Gripen; Dassault Aviation SA's Rafale; and Russia's MiG-35 and Sukhoi Su-35.

(Reporting by Jim Wolf, editing by Gerald E. McCormick)