When the United States Reprogramming Laboratory was established here nearly five years ago, the then-squadron commander made it clear why the lab was important to the F-35.
“Without mission data, the F-35 is a very pretty, and some would say very loud, aircraft,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Tim Welde, 513th Electronic Warfare Squadron (EWS) commander. “With mission data, the F-35 is pure lethality.”
Call it the brains behind the brawn.
Now, Eglin is scheduled to get two more of the multimillion-dollar labs beginning this year, both catering to the needs of U.S. allies. Add to that the fact that Eglin is where F-35 pilots and maintainers from all U.S. branches and foreign nations are trained and it’s clear Eglin is the epicenter for activities that put the fight in the F-35.
The Lockheed-Martin F-35 Lightning II has had its share of controversy. The most expensive weapons program ever, it’s had growing pains, like other new weapon systems. But it’s a far more capable warplane than predecessors, a digital jet packed with fiber optics and programming that makes it a flying computer. It’s designed with jaw-dropping capabilities requiring more than 8 million lines of coding. For comparison, a million lines of coding is roughly 18,000 pages.
Indeed, computer coding underpins all the F-35 capabilities. It enables flight controls; radar functionality; communications, navigation and identification; electronic attack; sensor fusion; and weapons deployment. As of January 2015, more than 89 percent of the required F-35 software was flying. About 99 percent of required software had been coded, leaving 90,000 lines to be written, according to Lockheed.
What gives the F-35 battle smarts are the mission data files being created by Eglin’s electronic warfare experts.
“The mission data is solely produced by the government,” said Lt. Col. David Perez, commander of the 513th EWS. “Our lab here is entirely a government-owned-and-operated lab producing these files.”
Traditional electronic warfare reprogramming focused on defensive systems. But in the F-35, data is required for offensive capabilities, as well.
The data packages — the Air Force is working on 12 data files for 12 geographic regions2 — hold terrain and enemy threat information, including enemy radar, surface-to-air missiles and fighters, along with data on friendly forces, non-belligerents and commercial aircraft — all that the pilots need for battle space awareness.
The F-35 is “capable of detecting any entity that’s in the airspace it’s operating, whether it be a threat, what we call a red system, a good guy, what we call a blue system, or neutral folks that we sometimes call gray systems, and also all the commercial systems, which we refer to as white,” said Perez.
The F-35s will go into battle packed with more data than other fighters.
“If you take two other Air Force platforms, the F-22 and the F-15, our mission data loads that we’re building are, in rough terms, about twice as big as that of an F-22 and about 10 times as big as that of an F-15,” said Perez.
All that information leads to the most distinct feature of the F-35: data fusion. Massive amounts of information from an array of sensors and mission data files are fused and provided to the pilot as clear, integrated, actionable information. It’s presented within a cyborg-like, custom-fitted helmet that’s the epitome of what the F-35 is all about. It’s where the intelligence of man and machine comes together.
When the 513th EWS was activated in April 2010 to operate the $300 million Air Combat Command’s United States Reprogramming Lab (USRL), its task was to create, modify, validate and verify mission data files for the Air Force F-35A, Marine Corps F-35B and Navy F-35C. Being the sole provider of electronic warfare capability was a considerable undertaking.
The Pentagon had to do something to relieve the heavy workload of the Eglin lab. But there was another problem to address. It was the issue of access to source codes. The Pentagon has had a policy of never sharing source codes for any U.S. weapons system. But the F-35 is being developed by the United States, the primary funder, and partner nations who have spent millions. They wanted access to source codes to be able to modify data packages to suit their needs.
In October 2014, Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan, executive director of the JSF Program Office, said a compromise was reached that would ease the Eglin lab workload and at the same time provide reprogramming labs for partner nations.
As a result of that compromise, there are now two mission data reprogramming centers: Reprogramming Center – East (RC-East) at Eglin, and Reprogramming Center – West (RC-West) at Naval Air Station Point Mugu, Calif.
RC-West consists of the F-35 Reprogramming Laboratory (FRL), and its customers are Japan and Israel. Other nations will join that lab in the future.
RC-East, run by the 53rd Electronic Warfare Group (EWG), right now consists of the USRL run by the 513th EWS. In the near future, two more labs will be part of RC-East. In mid-2015, ground will be broken for the Australia, Canada, United Kingdom Reprogramming Lab (ACURL). Then in mid-2016, there will be a groundbreaking for the Norway, Italy Reprogramming Lab (NIRL). The labs will permit them to customize mission data that will be loaded on their planes.
“They will be manned by a combination of foreign nationals from each of those countries, as well as by U.S. government personnel and U.S. contractors,” said Perez.
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