U.S. adversaries are rapidly catching up to America's fifth generation fighter aircraft capabilities—a risk that has exacerbated given ongoing cyber vulnerabilities in the F-35 fighter jet program, according to an Air Force major general.
Maj. Gen. Jerry Harris Jr., the vice commander of Air Combat Command at the Langley, Va., base, said Thursday that while the United States maintains an advantage in the stealth and weapons capacities inherent in fifth generation fighter aircraft models, adversaries are "quickly closing the gap."
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"We are trying to maximize our ability to procure fifth generation airplanes and go from a 100 percent fourth generation fleet to a significant mix of fifth generation [planes] so that we have the opportunity to operate in these hostile environments against these threats that are catching us faster than we thought they would," Harris testified before the House Armed Services Committee.
America's aircraft advantage is evident in Syria, where Russia has deployed its sophisticated S-400 air defense system that was designed to track stealth aircraft such as the F-22 and F-35. Harris said Russia's S-400 has the capability to eliminate all fourth generation fighter aircraft in Syria, but because the United States is flying fifth generation fighter aircraft in the war-torn country the threat is eliminated.
"It's the fifth [generation] that brings our ability to operate within that environment, hold those threats at risk, so that we're able to come to the table as a lead, not a near peer and continue to have American domination where we need to across the globe," he testified.
Harris said the Follow-On Modernization program incorporated in the F-35's system development and demonstration phase, or SDD, is imperative for U.S. forces to retain an edge over adversaries and to ensure the jet's software is fully operational.
The F-35 was initially set to be operational by late summer 2017, but that deadline has since been pushed back a year.
The Defense Department warned in August that several capabilities in the F-35's critical Block 3F software package were still under development. The Block 3F software controls the F-35's most crucial features, including the ability to process enemy radar signals, track moving targets, and operate the plane's weapons system.
The aircraft is also susceptible to cyber breaches.
Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan, the Pentagon's head of the F-35 program, testified Thursday that the aircraft still contains cyber weaknesses despite numerous reassessments of its software.
"There are vulnerabilities in the system today that we know about that we are trying to fix," Bogdan told the House committee. "The bigger problem that we see is on our off-board systems that are connected to various networks. When the system was originally designed, the maintenance system and the mission planning system on this airplane, we didn’t know what we didn't know about the threats."
Bogdan said the program is susceptible to playing "catch up" in identifying vulnerabilities given the evolving nature of cyber threats.
The issue has already cropped up among U.S. defense contractors, including the F-35's contractor Lockheed Martin.
A Chinese businessman hacked into the computer networks of the Pentagon and contractor Lockheed Martin Corp. in January 2015 and stole top-secret data and blueprints related to the F-22 and F-35 fighter jets. The information was passed onto the Chinese government.
Harris said cyber vulnerabilities begin at the weakest link, which in the Air Force typically means servicemen and women who are working on the F-35 aircraft. He said the military has employed extensive training for troops working on the fighter jets to ensure the risk is fully understood.