For the first time, a fifth-generation combat aircraft has flight-tested onboard software originating from a third-party developer.

The US Air Force (USAF) Air Combat Command (ACC) said on 29 August that test pilots and engineers achieved the milestone on a Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor.

The USAF describes the moment as ushering in “a new era in Department of Defense software capability development”.


Source: Senior Airman Tyler Woodward/US Department of Defense

The push to integrate so-called modular open-source architecture into high-tech defence programmes is part of an effort to reduce costs and create platforms that can quickly adapt new capabilities during a conflict

The flight, from Edwards AFB in California, represents the first ever instance of third-party software running on an advanced, fifth-generation fighter, and the first in-flight use of ”open-source container orchestration software” on any fighter aircraft, the USAF says.

Open-source refers to software in which the original source code is made available for distribution and modification. In practice, it allows third-party developers to create new applications for the original platform.

Due to security concerns and the highly-technical nature of their operations, the USAF notes, fifth-generation fighters have historically been unavailable for third-party software integration.

However, the Pentagon in recent years undertook a broad effort to open its long-life-cycle platforms, such as aircraft, to third-party developers – a concept known as a modular open systems approach (MOSA).

The initiative will require thousands of systems acquired by the sprawling Department of Defense procurement system to better work together and be more flexible. A major goal behind MOSA is to enable cheap and rapid integration of new systems to existing platforms. Such a capability is viewed as vital in potential future conflicts.

The US Army has also made MOSA a priority in its Future Vertical Lift initiative to develop the service’s next generation of helicopters.

The goal of the open-source push is to “rapidly discover and iterate on combat capabilities and stay relevant with cutting-edge technology, and affordably accelerate change in delivering combat air force capabilities as an enterprise”, says General Mark Kelly of the ACC.

The USAF team used an open-source architecture known as Open Systems Enclave (OSE), which allowed the combining of government-owned software with existing hardware already aboard F-22s.

“This breakthrough fundamentally changes how we can deliver combat capability to the warfighter,” says Major Allen Black, F-22 test pilot and project co-lead.

The USAF says the feat demonstrates that new technologies can be integrated with existing platforms in less than 60 days.

“We’ve proven the ability to rapidly evaluate and integrate next-generation technologies developed by experts in government, industry and academia at a lower cost with software portability across defence platforms,” Black says.

The USAF has now issued a formal requirement for the establishment of OSE on its F-22s.

Broadly, the service describes the open-source initiative as transforming its software development and acquisition strategy, enabling a future ”where apps are rapidly developed, matured and delivered to the warfighter at the push of a button”.