The F-35 Joint Striker Fighter jet will make the U.S. skies safe and give the air force an advantage over enemy planes any given day. The country is spending $400 billion to buy 2,400 units of the stealth plane but the price for the project has bloated by almost $170 billion and it could end up as a bumpy ride as the plane might be prone to hacking.
The F-35 is like a flying computer. One test pilot compared the plane to a Star Wars striker having an R2D2 as its brain. The jet depends on a computer dubbed as "ALIS" that interacts with the pilot via a high-technology helmet costing $500,000 each.
"Right now, to me, this is the ultimate in human-machine interaction," said Alan Norman, the chief test pilot of the F-35 manufactured by Lockheed Martin.
CBS correspondent David Martin did a story for "60 Minutes" and dug some interesting information about the latest toy of the armed forces.
"She looks basically like a laptop computer, and the pilot carries it out to the plane and sticks it in a slot right next to him in the cockpit. That contains all the information about the mission he's gonna fly. The servers which run all of this software take up a room about the size of a shipping container," Martin said.
The futuristic aircraft's computer, ALIS, poses a big problem for the US military. ALIS thinks as if it's the master of the ship and no one can override it. Like other computers, ALIS can also be prone to hacking.
"This is a juicy, juicy target for a hacker. If your adversary can hack into all that software that's running [the mission], then they've essentially defeated the plane," Martin figured after talking to officials involved in the F-35 program.
Hacking is not really new to F-35. The fighter-jet program of the Defense Department was hacked in April 2009. The hackers back then were able to access terabytes of data that exposed the fighter jet's electronic systems and design. The military denied then that the attackers were able to siphon sensitive information. The identities of the hackers were not known or even if they were known, they were not disclosed to the public.
In May 2013, Chinese spies were able to hack into vital information of the military, including data about weapons systems and the F-35 jet.
Given the possible weakness of ALIS, these previous hacks have very serious implications. The breaches can make the plane more vulnerable to military attacks or the onboard computer being hacked.
In a Pentagon draft report obtained by Reuters in January, ALIS was described to have "serious deficiencies" and its diagnostic system failed to meet basic requirements.
The F-35 has caused a major headache for the government too, but according to people familiar with the matter, these are the jet fighters that the U.S. need.
"We're not the only ones who understand that going to this next generation of capability in a fighter aircraft is critical to survive in the future of battle space and so others are going, notably now the Chinese, the Russians and we'll see more of that in the future," said Air Force Chief General Mark Welsh.
"If you take any older fighter like our existing aircraft and you put it nose to nose in, in a contested environment with a newer fighter, it will die. It will die before it even knows it's even in a fight," Welsh added, talking about the likes of T-50s of Russia and J-20s of China.
In addition to the production delays, the plane has to go through around 56,000 tests to declare it flight and combat worthy. It might be too late to back out in spending taxpayers' money and it looks like Pentagon is not really thinking about it. The F-35 is set to be used by the Marines come 2015 but that is highly unlikely.
To know more about the F-35 fighter jet, check out the infographic below from Lockheed Martin: