The F-35 'is kind of like the iPhone,' according to the Air Force's operational testing wing commander

Military Tech
The F-35 Lighting II

If it's an expensive next-generation weapon system, chances are a U.S. military official will at some point compare it to the iPhone.


In a wide-ranging interview with the Northwest Florida Daily News, new 53rd Wing commander Col. Ryan Messer offered his assessment of how the Pentagon's sprawling operational testing wing evaluates new aircraft and weapons systems before they head downrange — an assessment that included an easy-to-digest comparison between the beleaguered F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the most recognizable smartphone on the planet.

One of the neat things is that the F-35 is kind of like the iPhone. It's a piece of hardware, but what makes it amazing are the apps, or that software, that goes into it," Messer said when asked about F-35 testing. "Because it's a very software-centric aircraft, as we discover things, we're able to produce new mission data files that update the software, and we can evolve it very quickly."

If that analogy sounds familiar, it should: U.S. Army Col. Elliott Caggins used an eerily similar analogy in an interview with Task & Purpose on the Next Generation Squad Weapon that Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center (ARDEC) sees as the key to sparking a "revolution in small arms."

"Imagine that Steve Jobs and his engineers were trying to convert the iPod Touch to the first 3G iPhone," said Army Col. Elliott Caggins, project manager for soldier weapons. "There were a thousand technologies they could have put in the first iPhone but they were looking to mature the platform before they could actually go onto the system."

It may seem like a cheesy throwaway line proffered up in a PAO PowerPoint somewhere, but the weapon-system-as-iPhone analogy is somewhat apt. Indeed, a 2015 analysis from the Small Arms Survey found that the growing focus on modular weapons that's been embedded in U.S. military since since the mid 2000s has encouraged a shift from "firearms" to "weapons systems" in how planners think about infantry weapons.

"Each rifle has a core section (the upper or lower receiver) around which the user can switch all other parts to obtain different configurations depending on requirements," according to the analysis, citing U.S. Special Operations Command's Special Forces Combat Assault Rifle (SCAR) program, and the Close Quarter Battle (CQB) and Designated Marksman Rifles (DMR) as examples. "The main benefit of a modular weapon over its standard counterpart is that a single weapon can be deployed in multiple scenarios or environments through simple reconfiguration allowing its key features to be altered."

But does the analogy to the indispensably flexible iPhone extend to the F-35? Arguably, yes: small arms modularity still requires physical reconfigurations, while the F-35's Block 4 software is functionally more akin to the apps-on-apps-on-apps concept that Messer cited in his interview. Here's a decent analogy from The National Interest back in February:

Block 4.1 software upgrades intend to substantially "unlock" the capabilities of the F-35's sensors and communication systems. The Lightning's stealthy tight-beam Multifunction Advanced Datalink (MADL) will be made compatible with widely used Link 16 datalinks and even satellite communication, significantly expanding the number of friendly assets it can network with. It will also gain the ability to stream video to friendly forces on the ground using Rover-NG systems.

Meanwhile, the F-35's APG-81 AESA radar will gain a wide-area "Big" Synthetic Aperture mode, allowing it to scan large swaths of terrain, track moving surface vehicles, and create a detailed high-definition image for intelligence, navigation and weapons targeting purposes

Then again, the worst part about the iPhone is the constant software updates. Not only were the early production Block I and II F-35s delivered without software capabilities functional enough for full combat capability, USNI News reported in April that the entire program's move to the Block 4 continuing software update system "is costing the Navy the ability to procure more new planes in the near-term." And according to The National Interest, "though the Pentagon has begun outlaying hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts for Block 4 development, it doesn't have the funding to pay for it all."

Look, we get it: your super-advanced weapons system is as flexible and powerful as the modern smartphone, with more capabilities than you can shake your swiping finger at. But then again, it's also as buggy and expensive as a modern smartphone. Maybe it's time to find a new analogy.

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