By Vic Rosenthal
A refusal by the United States to allow Israel to repair computer systems in the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) is at the heart of disagreements between the Defense Ministry and the Pentagon that have been holding up an official Israeli order for the fifth-generation fighter jet.
The JSF, also known as the F-35, is a stealth fighter jet under development by Lockheed Martin. Last year, Israel received approval from the Pentagon to purchase up to 75 aircraft in a deal that could reach close to $20 billion.
Defense officials told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday that talks between the Israeli defense delegation in Washington and the Pentagon have picked up speed in recent weeks but have yet to result in agreement due to the US’s refusal to grant Israel access to the plane’s internal computer mainframe.
The Americans are concerned that by allowing Israel to independently repair the computers, the Israel Air Force will get its hands on the classified technology that was used to make the plane.
Israel, on the other hand, has argued that due to its operational requirements it needs to have the ability to repair damaged or broken computer systems in “real time” and cannot wait for a computer system to be sent to the US for repairs in the middle of a war.
The Americans have told Israel it will receive a number of spare computer systems that it could install in place of a damaged system but would still have to send the damaged system to the US for repairs.
I don’t think Israel is primarily worried about the time it takes to repair the computers. In any event there would be spares on hand. And perhaps keeping classified technology secret is not the only US reason to keep Israeli hands out of the computers.
Consider: In order to correct a malfunction in a computer system, you need to first of all determine if the primary cause is a hardware or software failure.
This means that you have to understand how both hardware and software work, which means that in order to fix the computer you need to have access to the software’s documented source code. You also need a means to compile the code and load the result into the computer on the aircraft.
Now if my life and the lives of tens or hundreds of thousands of others might depend on that code, I would want to understand it very, very well. And once I understand it, I would want to make certain that the program running on the aircraft matches the code that I understand.
I would want to be sure there were no hidden back doors into the software.
Think about it. How hard would it be to implant a routine in the aircraft’s software that would provide a position report to an American satellite every few seconds?
Anything is possible. What if the computer could receive a command to disable certain weapons systems? Or the engine? Or even be instructed to do so automatically when, say, the Iranian border is crossed?
This isn’t science fiction — it’s a lot easier than many of the things a flight computer has to do.
Given the turn being taken by Obama Administration with regard to Israel and Iran, it would only be normal prudence for Israel to insist on the complete documented source code and the means to compile and load it.