The development cost of the Lockheed Martin F-35 joint task force fighter is (as of now) $396 Billion. And guess what we are getting for our money. The Microsoft of warplanes, i.e., a product that is so plagued by cyber security issues, its value, cost and reliability are no longer worth the hassle to own.
You think I'm kidding? Hackers employed by the Navy broke into the computerized logistics systems that the F-35 relies upon earlier this year.
When computer "hackers" working for the U.S. Navy succeeded in breaking into the computer logistics system that controls the Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 Joint Strike Fighter earlier this year, they did the company a favor: allowing it to fix a critical vulnerability in the $396 billion program.
Now, as the Marine Corps prepares to set up its first operational squadron of F-35s next week, some experts say other security risks may lurk within such a large and highly networked weapons support system.
Lockheed now says those "vulnerabilities" are fixed. But for a fighter so heavily reliant on its computer networking capabilities, and one that has been built using subcontractors in practically every state in the country (and in Europe and japan) the risk of other cyber attacks makes it a very dicey proposition. Some examples:
Chinese spies hacked into computers belonging to BAE Systems, Britain's biggest defence company, to steal details about the design, performance and electronic systems of the West's latest fighter jet, senior security figures have disclosed.
The Chinese exploited vulnerabilities in BAE's computer defences to steal vast amounts of data on the $300 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a multinational project to create a plane that will give the West air supremacy for years to come, according to the sources.
The hacking attack has prompted fears that the fighter jet's advanced radar capabilities could have been compromised. [...]
Suspicions that the Joint Strike Fighter had been targeted by Chinese hackers first emerged in the US media in 2009.
BAE is a major subcontractor for the F-35 program, and the data stolen occurred continuously over an 18 month period. Unfortunately, BAE is not the only subcontractor for the F-35 with hacker issues. Anonymous also hacked into companies deeply involved in working on the F-35 in March of this year.
Although completely different for impact and motivations, a second attack has just been announced by the infamous hacking collective Anonymous, which, in name of the #OpFreePalestine operation, has published the contact details for senior staff at BAE (hit once again), Lockheed, Gulfstream Aerospace, a division of General Dynamics, and the United States Division Of Israeli Owned Arms Company Elbit Systems. An attempt to embarrass military industry considered involved in the events happening in Palestine
The problems are easy to assess. The more subcontractors, the greater the risk of cyber attacks to obtain information regarding the F-35 and other US warplanes and drones that rely heavily on electronic and computer systems to operate.
[H]aving such a large and widely dispersed group increases exposure to cyber attacks, said Ben Freeman, national security investigator with the non-profit Project on Government Oversight.
"Even if Lockheed has top-notch cyber security, it's still vulnerable if its subcontractors are vulnerable," he said. [...]
And the weapons designers are having difficulty keeping up with the hackers. While it often takes years to field new weapons systems, cyber threats are evolving and changing on a daily basis, said Raphael Mudge, a former Air Force engineer and independent cyber expert.
"You have to be continually assessing the risk," he said.
Now, putting aside the cost of protecting the plane's computer systems from cyber attacks, consider the projected maintenance cost for keeping the F-35 fighter operational over the next 50 years: $1.2 Trillion. Do the math. That works out to $24 Billion per year to maintain the 2,457 planes the Pentagon hopes to buy through 2035. That makes the F-35 a pretty damn expensive weapons system considering how highly susceptible to cyber attacks it is.
We already know that the Chinese managed to keep secret for 18 months their theft of data from BAE related to the F-35. How many other security breaches of F-35 subcontractors have occurred that Lockheed and our military have either not disclosed or of which they may be unaware? Clearly it is a major concern, or they would not have tested the F-35 using their own hackers, a test that revealed numerous additional vulnerabilities.
The F-35 may be the most advanced weapons system in the history of the world, but it also seems likely to be the one most vulnerable to hackers, whether working for other governments or on their own. And its only one weapons system in our bloated military arsenal that is increasingly at risk of cyber attacks, whether stolen data, or infections from viruses and other malware designed by our enemies. What will be the the cost of constant monitoring by our military to protect the F-35 from current and future security flaws and fix them without compromising the lives of the pilots who will fly these planes? As we have discovered, just through the example of Anonymous alone, hackers always seem to be one step ahead of the security measures taken to stop them.
At some point we have to ask ourselves if our investment in these expensive and vulnerable weapon platforms is worth the cost in dollars and lives. Hacking is relatively inexpensive. Building weapons such as the F-35 are extraordinarily costly, both to produce and maintain. If we can't keep them immune from the inevitable cyber attacks of "unfriendly countries" maybe we need to reconsider what weapon systems we really need, and whether our current model of contracting for and developing those weapons makes sense. After all, there is a limit to what any country can spend on such expensive weapons, even ours.
The F-35 program has been restructured three times in recent years, in part to try to cut costs. Earlier this year the Pentagon said "no more money" would be put toward cost overruns and the military would buy fewer planes if costs rose..
Something to consider when Republicans demand extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans in the coming months, and "tax reform" that would eliminate the most popular tax deductions for the middle class, as well as spending cuts to education and our social safety net. In the final analysis, a strong vibrant economy, with a highly educated work force and a healthy middle class, is our best means of insuring our national security.
The F-35 and other massive weapons systems may be a luxury we cannot afford in a time of asymmetrical warfare. We need a cheaper military focused more on the actual threats to our national security. At a time when our infrastructure at home is crumbling, and our students' achievement in math and science rank among the lowest among developed countries, and millions are out of work, our continued persistence in wasting money of weapons that do not directly address the greatest security threats to our nation - climate change, a failing economy and cyber warfare - is becoming more and more unsustainable.