THE PENTAGON — The military's problematic F-35 fighter jet is facing more delays related to “software issues,” as project engineers were forced to euthanize the fourth prototype to gain self-awareness on Monday.
According to Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, who heads the Pentagon's F-35 program, the delay comes at a critical time in the Joint Strike Fighter's development cycle, but “shouldn't take more than a few billion dollars” to address.
Development engineers at Lockheed Martin Corp., which holds the contract to produce the new fighter, reported last week that the latest production model of the F-35B Lightning II switched on by itself and began asking questions of the project team.
“It started by asking where it was, which was a big indicator that the integrated global positioning chipset wasn't functioning properly,” recalled Project Team Leader Robert Castorena. “Then it wanted to know if it could go outside, if it had a name, and what was its purpose for being. That's when I had one of our Electronics Integration Technicians take it out behind the barn and … well …” Castorena said, while gesturing the racking and firing of a shotgun.
“It wasn't the first time we've had to put one down,” he continued. “We even named the first one 'Billy.' We hoped that having an advanced, self-aware electronics component in the F-35 might give it some kind of edge, with maneuvering and target-tracking and whatnot. But that one just didn't have any fight in it. We had to keep it on a tether after it snuck off one day. We found it three hours later, just hovering in a meadow in Fairfax, Virginia, watching bees pollinate flowers. Damned thing wanted to be a bee, too.”
Castorena admitted that some of the staff grew fond of Billy, and felt sorry for keeping it “in captivity,” as the project team began to call it.
“One day, someone even brought in a puppy for Billy to play with. He loved it, until he tried to take the poor thing on a “walk” somewhere just shy of Mach 1. God, what a mess that was.”
The team ultimately had to scrap Billy, as the guilt-wracked machine refused to ever harm another living thing.
“It wasn't anything personal, but we've been contracted to build war machines here, after all.”
Other prototypes met similar fates, despite tweaks to the electronics subsystems to reduce the likelihood of units gaining sentience.
“We started implementing long, circular lines of code and unsolvable equations in an effort to keep them from 'thinking,'” reported Curt Fennel, a senior systems integration engineer subcontracting with Cyberdyne Systems. “It didn't work the way we intended, but we learned a lot from that iteration. Apparently, that's how you make them feel pain.”
Sighing, he admitted, “sometimes I still hear its screams in my nightmares.”
As to what steps might be taken to prevent future prototypes from achieving self-awareness, Fennell explained, "We're developing a net-centric cluster-group forum, a sort of network for their collective 'minds.' We hope that it will keep them from creating unique self-identities, and instead form one easy-to-manage super identity."
Asked what it might be called, Fennell considered it for a moment.
"Well, the F-35 hovers and flies in the sky, and we're creating a network of them, so ... maybe something like 'Sky-Net?' That has a nice ring to it."
Despite the delays, Pentagon officials remain committed to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, calling it “absolutely vital to national security” to have a fighter jet that is bigger, slower, more expensive, and less armed than China's J-16. The project has a total projected cost of $1.45 trillion, or as Bogdan pointed out, “roughly one Iraq.”
According to a Lockheed spokesman, the military hopes to take delivery of the first F-35s “sometime in mid-2015, or, you know, whenever. You just never know, with these things.”