US military and defence industry officials are close to adopting Silicon Valley-style software development and refresh processes for military aircraft, starting with billion-dollar upgrade programmes for the Lockheed Martin F-35 and F-22.

The new strategy could be approved within months as the F-35 joint programme office faces the challenge of fixing bugs in the F-35’s go-to-war Block 3F software and developing the follow-on Block 4 package of capability improvements.

F-35 software planning has entered a “strategic pause” until JPO staffers present a new software development plan for consideration by top Pentagon officials in late October, says F-35 programme executive Vice Adm Mat Winter, speaking at the Defense News Conference on 6 September.

Meanwhile, the “agile” software development technique used by Apple to develop iPhone applications could be adopted by the F-22 programme office, as the US Air Force considers developing a stealthy transmit and receive mode for the Link 16 datalink to communicate with a future unmanned “loyal wingman” and the F-35, says Sean Singleton, director of business development and marketing for the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx).

Singleton, speaking on the sidelines of the same conference, says the F-22 SPO and prime contractor Lockheed are open to making the switch, with an eye to accelerating the new datalink capability from 2021 or 2022.

The goal of the new strategy is to circumvent the US military’s costly and time-consuming process that delivers new software in cumbersome blocks, with development cycles often measured in years and frequently delayed. Instead, the new approach breaks new capabilities into smaller increments of software code, allowing developers to deliver some applications months or years faster.

The military aircraft strategy has emerged five months after the USAF issued a stop work order to Northrop Grumman on developing software for Block 10.2 of the Air Operations Center, a network of air warfare command centers around the world. Instead, the USAF started working with DIUx in July to partner with Silicon Valley firms to deliver the same capabilities within a year.

“DIUx will bring the agile methodology that we’ve done with AOC” to military aircraft, Singleton says. “We’re bringing in Silicon Valley into these large weapon systems.”

As the strategy shifts from a ground-based operations centre to aircraft software, programme planners could shift modernisation priorities to account for the impact on airworthiness certification timelines.

In the case of the F-35, the JPO will bring Block 4 capabilities forward that do not have an impact on the airworthiness, centre of gravity or flight dynamics of the fighter, Winter says. Such capabilities include software- and hardware-enabled sensor upgrades, he says. Other improvements, such as adding new weapons that require airworthiness certification, would be implemented later from 2020 to 2022, Winter says.

Lockheed is now on track to deliver the full Block 3F software package by the end of the year, allowing the USAF to begin initial operational test and evaluation on the F-35A next year.