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.

Photo illustration by Paul Szoldra

Navy Lt. Jonny Kim went viral last week when NASA announced that he and 10 other candidates (including six other service members) became the newest members of the agency's hallowed astronaut corps. A decorated Navy SEAL and graduate of Harvard Medical School, Kim in particular seems to have a penchant for achieving people's childhood dreams.

However, Kim shared with Task & Purpose that his motivation for living life the way he has stems not so much from starry-eyed ambition, but from the pain and loss he suffered both on the battlefields of Iraq and from childhood instability while growing up in Los Angeles. Kim tells his story in the following Q&A, which was lightly edited for length and clarity:

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Todd Robinson's upcoming Vietnam War drama, The Last Full Measure, is a story of two battles: One takes place during an ambush in the jungles of Vietnam in 1966, while the other unfolds more than three decades later as the survivors fight to see one pararescueman's valor posthumously recognized.

On April 11, 1966, Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger (played by Jeremy Irvine) responded to a call to evacuate casualties belonging to a company with the Army's 1st Infantry Division near Cam My during a deadly ambush, the result of a search and destroy mission dubbed Operation Abilene.

In the ensuing battle, the unit suffered more than 80 percent casualties as their perimeter was breached. Despite the dangers on the ground, Pitsenbarger refused to leave the soldiers trapped in the jungle and waved off the medevac chopper, choosing to fight, and ultimately die, alongside men he'd never met before that day.

Decades later, those men fought to see Pitsenbarger's Air Force Cross upgraded to the Medal of Honor. On Dec. 8, 2000, they won, when Pitsenbarger was posthumously awarded the nation's highest decoration for valor.

The Last Full Measure painstakingly chronicles that long desperate struggle, and the details of the battle are told in flashbacks by the soldiers who survived the ambush, played by a star-studded cast that includes Samuel L. Jackson, Ed Harris, and William Hurt.

After Operation Abilene, some of the men involved moved on with their lives, or tried to, and the film touches on the many ways they struggled with their grief, trauma, and in the case of some, feelings of guilt. For the characters in The Last Full Measure, seeing Pitsenbarger awarded the Medal of Honor might be the one decent thing they pull out of that war, remarks Jackson's character, Lt. Billy Takoda, one of the soldier's whose life Pitsenbarger saved.

There are a lot of threads to follow in The Last Full Measure, individual strands of a larger story that feel misplaced, redacted, or cut short — at times, violently. But this is not a criticism, quite the opposite in fact. This tangled web is part of the larger narrative at play as Scott Huffman, a fictitious modern-day Pentagon bureaucrat played by Sebastian Stan, tries to piece together what actually happened that fateful day so many years ago.

At the start, Huffman — the person who ultimately becomes Pitsenbarger's champion in Washington — wants nothing to do with the airman's story, the medal, or the Vietnam veterans who want to see his sacrifice recognized. For Huffman, it's a burdensome assignment, just one more box to check before he can move on to brighter and better career prospects.

The skepticism of Pentagon bureaucracy and Washington political operators is on full display throughout the movie. When Takoda first meets Huffman, the Army vet grills the overdressed and out-of-his-depth government flack about his intentions, calls him an FNG (fucking new guy) and tosses Huffman's recorder into the nearby river where he's fishing with his grandkids.

Sebastian Stan stars as Scott Huffman alongside Samuel Jackson as Billy Takoda in "The Last Full Measure."(IMDB)

As Huffman spends more time with the grunts who fought alongside Pitsenbarger, and the Air Force PJs who flew with him that day, he, and the audience, come to see their campaign, and their frustration over the lack of progress, in a different light.

In one of the movie's later moments, The Last Full Measure offers an explanation for why Pitsenbarger's award languished for so long. The theory? Pitsenbarger's Medal of Honor citation was downgraded to a service cross, not because his actions didn't meet the standard associated with the nation's highest award for valor, but because his rank didn't.

"The conjecture among the Mud Soldiers and Bien Hoa Eagles is that Pitsenbarger was passed over because he was enlisted," Robinson, who wrote and directed The Last Full Measure, told Task & Purpose.

"As for the events in the film, Pitsenbarger's upgrade was clearly ignored for decades and items had been lost — whether that was deliberate is up for discussion but we feel we captured the spirit of the issues at hand either way," he said. "Some of these questions are simply impossible to answer with 100% certainty as no one really knows."

The cynicism in The Last Full Measure is overt, but to be entirely honest, it feels warranted. While watching the film, I couldn't help but think back to recent stories of battlefield bravery, like that of Army Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe, who ran into a burning Bradley three times in Iraq to pull out his wounded men — a feat of heroism that cost him his life, and inspired an ongoing campaign to see Cashe awarded the Medal of Honor.

There's no shortage of op-eds by current and former service members who see the military's awards process as slow and cumbersome at best, and biased or broken at worst, and it's refreshing to see that criticism reflected in a major war movie. And sure, like plenty of military dramas, The Last Full Measure has some sappy moments, but on the whole, it's a damn good film.

The Last Full Measure hits theaters on Jan. 24.

Protesters and militia fighters gather to condemn air strikes on bases belonging to Hashd al-Shaabi (paramilitary forces), outside the main gate of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq December 31, 2019. (Reuters/Thaier al-Sudani)

With ISIS trying to reorganize itself into an insurgency, most attacks on U.S. and allied forces in Iraq are being carried out by Shiite militias, said Air Force Maj. Gen. Alex Grynkewich, the deputy commander for operations and intelligence for U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria.

"In the time that I have been in Iraq, we've taken a couple of casualties from ISIS fighting on the ground, but most of the attacks have come from those Shia militia groups, who are launching rockets at our bases and frankly just trying to kill someone to make a point," Grynkewich said Wednesday at an event hosted by the Air Force Association's Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

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U.S. Army Soldiers, assigned to the East Africa Response Force (EARF), 101st Airborne Division, board a C-130J Super Hercules, assigned to the 75th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, on January 5, 2020. (U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Daniel Hernandez)

The Defense Department has remained relatively tight-lipped regarding the brazen Jan. 5 raid on a military base at Manda Bay, Kenya, but a new report from the New York Times provides a riveting account filled with new details about how the hours-long gunfight played out.

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Roughly a dozen U.S. troops showing concussion-related symptoms are being medically evacuated from Al-Asad Air Base in Iraq to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, a defense official told Task & Purpose on Tuesday.

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