If the F-35 Lightning II is going to serve into the 2070s for some countries, it will need to be upgraded from time to time. A new update package called the Block 4 has tongues wagging. This is a major round of changes that could entail up to 75 different upgrades.
The Block 4 update installs numerous modifications. The F-35 is a flying computer, and much like your own PC or laptop, the central processing and memory unit need an update to install the mods. This does not come free, like your Microsoft Windows improvements do. The U.S. military is spending at least $15 billion for Block 4.
Improve the Brain and Backbone of the F-35
Block 4 will improve the airplane’s hardware and software for the three service branches that fly it – the Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy. First, the central processing unit, known as the “IT backbone” of the F-35, will receive the Technology Refresh-3 update. Technology Refresh-2 lacks the power needed to handle the Block 4 upgrade package, and the migration from TR-2 to TR-3 will cost more than $300 million.
The F-35s in use now will get the retrofit in a process that takes about 14 days of downtime, enough to be considered a maintenance period while the fighters stay on the ground. New airplanes, on the other hand, will come installed with the Block 4 suite. Technology Refresh-3 will allow the main computer, software, and hardware to be easily updated in the future.
The Block 4 will enable better integration of new weapons and improve the aircraft’s battle management system. This creates more robust targeting – it will detect and track a greater number of enemy fighters and incoming missiles.
The military is also hyping a new concept called “kill webs” meant to improve the network among numerous planes and command-and-control on the ground. Block 4 will enable this web of systems for improved electronic warfare and situational awareness.
Block 4 is no instant upgrade. It could take until FY2029 before all F-35s in the U.S. fleet receive the improvements. The software also needs to be created, tested, and pushed out. Defects in TR-2 will be fixed before any new features are added. Hopefully the system will be well protected against cyber-attacks.
Constantly Improving Technology
The F-35 just keeps getting better, thanks to constant updates. Iteration is never complete. Users will get an improved product, but they will have to wait before the update reaches all airplanes. The F-35 is a marvel. Its radar signature is tiny. It can drop bombs and launch missiles in contested airspace and fight its way home for another mission. It is so popular on the export market that 16 countries either have it or are in the process of purchasing the advanced fighter.
But the aircraft does need to be upgraded periodically, like a Tesla that receives software updates to improve various systems. Block 4 will make the F-35 more survivable and lethal in the coming decades. These advancements are the biggest changes to the F-35 since its first flight in 2006. It’s a good thing that Lockheed Martin is looking to the future. China and Russia have next-generation stealth fighters, and China especially depends on its most advanced warplane, the J-20 Mighty Dragon. This model could go up against the F-35 someday, so it is imperative that pilots are flying the best fighter possible. The Block 4 update can help wield a warplane that is the most technologically sound in the world.
Expert Biography: Serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwood is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.