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B-2 Stealth Bomber Gets Upgrade, Joins the '90s 366

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the decade-late dept.
WmHBlair writes "Flightglobal has a report about the upgrades being made to the B-2A Stealth Bomber, which include Pentium class processors, JOVIAL code rewritten in C, and fibre channel hard drives. The Register, as usual, makes light of this event with a tongue-in-cheek news item noting that the upgrade drags Stealth Bomber IT systems into the '90s."
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B-2 Stealth Bomber Gets Upgrade, Joins the '90s

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 14, 2008 @04:08PM (#24187393)

    but microprocessors that are designed to handle a nuclear EMP aren't blazing fast. But they are definitely not 90s technology.

    I think the B-2 bomber will be fine unless its pilots require the extra computing power to play "punch the monkey" or the South Park Lemmiwinks game.

  • Bitchin' (Score:5, Funny)

    by Etrias (1121031) on Monday July 14, 2008 @04:08PM (#24187395)
    Can't wait to see it fire up and have the screen print out: It is pitch black. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.
  • by $RANDOMLUSER (804576) on Monday July 14, 2008 @04:09PM (#24187423)

    ...upgrades ... include Pentium class processors ... "drags Stealth Bomber IT systems into the 90s"

    89.999997612?

  • by hardburn (141468) <hardburn@@@wumpus-cave...net> on Monday July 14, 2008 @04:10PM (#24187431)

    While the headline might be good for a light giggle, there's a good reason why it's 10 years behind. Airplane avionics systems must be free of bugs, or people die. That especially goes for a plane that uses a flying wing design (which are historically hard to stabilize without computer control), and potentially carries nuclear warheads.

    • by Etrias (1121031)
      Gah. Spoilsport.
    • by tzhuge (1031302) on Monday July 14, 2008 @04:18PM (#24187563)
      In this case...

      avionics systems must be free of bugs, or people don't die.

    • Not only that, though that's the main reason - The important parts are the sensors and the software. So long as the rest of the system works within spec it doesn't matter.

    • by ArsonSmith (13997) on Monday July 14, 2008 @04:20PM (#24187591) Journal

      "Ultimate reliability" and "Pentium class from the 90s" just doesn't really go well together.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 14, 2008 @04:23PM (#24187635)

      More than that. Aircraft, especially military aircraft that fly at the altitudes the B2 does, also require "hardened" electronics, capable of handling much larger temperature ranges and higher electro-magnetic interference. That means the processors, while they may be Pentium class, are not Pentium's. They may even use ceramics for the ICs, but either way the new electronics would require a much larger feature size, and therefore less performance than the current cutting edge electronics.

      • by CheshireCatCO (185193) on Monday July 14, 2008 @04:28PM (#24187749) Homepage

        Exactly, you beat me to the punch. The same is true in spacecraft components, which is why the computing power and other parts always seem to be so pitiful compared to current technology. (Well, plus the lag between design and actual appearance in space.) Sad, but it's most likely the best way. It's not quite as clear that the military should be quite as far behind as NASA, though.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by QuantumRiff (120817)
        I do believe they have some other exotic things, like Sapphire coatings for additional EMP protection. Stuff that is crazy-expensive!
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Xiaran (836924)
      Not just avionics. Ive worked on SCADA and other mission critical systems(fire control and stuff like that). And people outside those industries are always harping on about how "backward" it all seems. If I had a penny for every dopey half wit manager type asked me why we didnt just upgrade everything(usually to Windows... windows 3.1/95 no less) Id have £56.34. Fine. If the 95 box freezes and knocks out the fire alarms reporting and evac alarms then I hope you all burn :)
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by 91degrees (207121)
      The other factor is that if a Pentium is fast enough, then there's no need for a faster processor. Real planes don't suffer from frame rate issues.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by fyoder (857358)

      Oughta run the latest version of Ubuntu on the latest processor from AMD. Going with OSS, if there's a bug which causes a nuclear disaster, the open source community will have a patch out within 24 hours.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Josh Booth (588074)

      While the headline might be good for a light giggle, there's a good reason why it's 10 years behind. Airplane avionics systems must be free of bugs, or people die. That especially goes for a plane that uses a flying wing design (which are historically hard to stabilize without computer control), and potentially carries nuclear warheads.

      You mean like this [youtube.com]?

    • by Goldenhawk (242867) on Tuesday July 15, 2008 @12:16PM (#24199037) Homepage

      I worked on a Navy jet upgrade about 10 years ago. It was a project to replace an antiquated (read that as "wire-wrap technology") autopilot computer with a brand-new, spiffy, fully digital autopilot computer. Of course, just like the B-2, it had to be a form/fit replacement.

      I was shocked when, at the first design review, the contractor said they would be using an 80286 as the CPU. Remember, this is 1995. The 80286 was introduced in 1984. By 1995, the Pentium was the standard. So of course I asked "Why use such an older processor, when a newer one would be much much faster?"

      Their answer was essentially one word.

      HEAT.

      The 286 had perfectly adequate processing power to run the fairly simple algorithms needed for autopilot and related functions, including all the error detection and fault logging, as well as the required 2x of government-mandated growth allowance (you MUST use less than 50% of clock times in your design). Using anything more high-powered would generate more heat (which must be dissipated somewhere in the closed environment), and use more current. On a 1960's era airplane, with Kapton wiring and its risk of insulation fires, and its limited power generation ability, you don't toss in higher heat and power requirements without VERY good reasons.

      The result turned out to be perfectly adequate, and a vast improvement over the original design.

      Let me toss out another interesting statistic. From what I remember from a recent brief, Boeing is right now delivering upgrades to its commercial airline fleet autopilot/navigation computers with 32Mb of data storage installed for the navigation database. Just 32Mb. That's what you're sitting behind in every Southwest or United or American flight you enjoy. With memory so cheap, why not put more in? Same logic, same ideas: for commericial and military programs, you don't overbuild a device just because you can. You'd better have a REALLY good reason to make a change.

      We geeks tend to forget that overclocking and water-cooling and 8Gb RAM and 2-TB hard drives are thousands of times overkill for very many purposes.

  • by ScentCone (795499) on Monday July 14, 2008 @04:11PM (#24187451)
    As was recently discussed about the current Mars lander mission, it's really just fine if something built to do a very specific job doesn't have support for this week's gamer-friendly video board, a hacked Wii controller, bluetooth, and a dozen USB ports. Hardened, reliable hardware and bug-free seems better than, say, some of the misadventures [www.cbc.ca] that some IT-intensive commercial aircraft have suffered over the last few years. It's OK to be one notch less cool when you're flying around with large weapons.
  • by Duncan Blackthorne (1095849) on Monday July 14, 2008 @04:11PM (#24187453)
    Having worked for a defense contractor (non-weapons, mind you) for 6 years, it doesn't surprise me at all that the technology for such things are at least 10 years behind state of the art. It takes so long to fully satisfy the requirements of a military contract, then it takes at least as long to fix all the little bugs that inevitably pop up after delivery; then there's the military amending their requirements halfway through the project, sometimes resulting in having to go almost all the way back to square one in the design cycle. Oh, and don't even get me started on requirements that belong in cartoons and comic books, not the real world of engineering.
  • by Plazmid (1132467) on Monday July 14, 2008 @04:13PM (#24187485)
    This is an interesting approach to security, use machines so old that no one can crack. Maybe that's why the Russians still use vacuum tubes in MiGs.
    • Or, it can be used to strip things down to the bare minimum to decrease vulnerabilities. For example, is a server powerful enough to run X? Yes, but using X adds more problems and security holes. Same thing with this.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by boa (96754)

      This is an interesting approach to security, use machines so old that no one can crack. Maybe that's why the Russians still use vacuum tubes in MiGs.

      Maybe, or maybe they do it to protect their planes from EMP? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electromagnetic_bomb#Effects [wikipedia.org]

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by TeknoHog (164938)

      This is an interesting approach to security, use machines so old that no one can crack. Maybe that's why the Russians still use vacuum tubes in MiGs.

      When the only tool you have is a hammer, every cracking problem looks like a vacuum tube.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Eil (82413)

      Maybe that's why the Russians still use vacuum tubes in MiGs.

      Even the mighty U.S. has a few planes flying with vacuum tubes. I worked in a Air Force avionics shop 6 years ago and the oldest system we maintained was a C-130 autopilot. The whole thing probably had around 25 tubes.

      The newest system in the shop was the INS (intertial navigation system) for the MH-53J [wikipedia.org] (in fact, it's likely that I worked on the very aircraft pictured). This was a rather elaborate system, so our troubleshooting was mostly limited

  • by The Ancients (626689) on Monday July 14, 2008 @04:13PM (#24187487) Homepage

    Naturally the stealth bomber's software has to be rewritten for the new platform, in particular the operational flight program (OFP) - the app which lets the ungainly plane fly, rather than lurching out of control as it would without constant computer assistance. (A recent B-2 crash shortly after takeoff at the Pacific island of Guam was caused by a false sensor data feed into the OFP, resulting from an airspeed measuring device being affected by tropical moisture. The duff data fooled the OFP app into wrecking the $2bn bomber - while the pilots were unable to do anything to stop it.)

    Brilliant!

    • And the pilots that run the USAF stil can't get behind the UAV revolution. The meat becomes a fragile, expensive, heavy, low range liability in combat. I worry about a sky filled with cheap UAVs expediting a taiwan strait crossing and leap frogging a meat boat USAF in technology. On a more positive note I hope the US army keeps its own UAV group.
  • Anyone have an over/under on how many Pentium FPU jokes there will be? Although I would think they would be smart enough to write the code around that particular bug causing a fatal error in the flight control computer.

    More seriously, any large, complicated project is straddled with technology it's designed with to some extent, especially something that has lead times measured in years or decades, like warplanes. I would think that the B-2 is now not far from being equal to any other modern plane in av
  • element of surprise (Score:4, Informative)

    by roman_mir (125474) on Monday July 14, 2008 @04:13PM (#24187503) Homepage Journal

    imagine that in the future the enemy (whoever thinks they are the enemy and the others, who are not even aware that they maybe the enemy) will never know when they will get their shit kicked out of them due to a possible Pentium FDIV error [wikipedia.org] or a buffer overflow of some sort. [wikipedia.org] Let's just hope that any security bugs will be dealt with promptly, cause if they can hack into a computer because of some CPU errors by using java or javascript through a browser [slashdot.org], the will certainly be looking for a way to control some [wikipedia.org] more [wikipedia.org] exciting [wikipedia.org] equipment [wikipedia.org].

  • by speedtux (1307149) on Monday July 14, 2008 @04:14PM (#24187509)

    I'm not sure that replacing JOVIAL code with C code is actually progress. If JOVIAL is anything like ALGOL 60, it's arguably a better programming language than C.

    • by Fear the Clam (230933) on Monday July 14, 2008 @04:50PM (#24188069)

      If JOVIAL is anything like ALGOL 60, it's arguably a better programming language than C.

      It's HAPPIER.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by sconeu (64226)

      It essentially is Algol [wikipedia.org]. JOVIAL stands for "Jules Own Version of IAL". IAL was at one point the name for Algol.

    • JOVIAL BITES (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Embedded Geek (532893) on Monday July 14, 2008 @06:21PM (#24189117) Homepage
      My first job out of college was on the B-2, specifically on the flight control box. Despite what C/C++ detractors might say, JOVIAL as I saw it in use was vastly inferior to nearly any other language I've ever used. Compiler bugs were known but never fixed. The minuscule market for JOVIAL applications meant limited or no choice in compilers or tools. The lack of coders meant that you could not attract personnel and those you had were incentivized to get the heck out so as not to become unemployable.

      Frankly, the actual language you use on a project is almost (not quite, but almost) an afterthought compared to the other factors of toolsets and talent pool.

  • by deft (253558) on Monday July 14, 2008 @04:14PM (#24187515) Homepage

    What this article seems to overlook is that they DONT WANT new computers and new operating systems, new languages. They want older, stable, rpedictable, thoroughly vetted technologies.

    They dont need a super computer to fly these, but what they do need os to know every quirk, every instability, and already have dealt with it so that NOTHING even remotely suprises them.

    Thats why moving to C is a big step.

    it may seem silly to us because we run all sorts of new stuff on our computers designed to run many things we may never use; These are VERY purpose built, need very little flexibility outside its designated purpose, and doesnt need to be overdone.

    I may buy a PC system anticipating programs down the road that might be expanded, but for an aircraft, missiles, sattelites, even the space shuttle which runs EVRY old code, they just need it to do exactly what it needs too, and if that works fine with 256k, then thats what it will get, as long as its stable as all hell.

    • by LWATCDR (28044)

      You left out that the Pentiums are probably radiation hardened as well.

    • by DontBlameCanada (1325547) on Monday July 14, 2008 @04:32PM (#24187807)
      I've worked on military CPU replacement in the past for a subcontractor. We were upgrading an early 60s avionics set built from, get this, AND, OR and NOR gates. The most complex part was a 4 bit shift register - pretty wild. So I know a bit about this.

      The major problem with using components newer than the mid-90s is that they are so sensitive to radiation. Not EM, but Alpha particles and other cosmic rays. Its prohibitively expensive to rad-harden (radiation harden) sub-100nm chips and when that is achieved the yields are so low that the cost balloons even more. Radiation hits my cause the rare BSOD for you, on a nuclear armed aircraft its may show up as a MCOD - mushroom cloud of destruction.
  • So what? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by JesseL (107722) on Monday July 14, 2008 @04:18PM (#24187573) Homepage Journal

    That just means their development & testing cycle runs about 15 years. That doesn't seem terribly unreasonable given that reliability is paramount for a billion dollar piece of equipment.

    I work on brand new industrial controls that are still using Z80 processors.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 14, 2008 @04:20PM (#24187601)

    Pentium 4 chips and Athlons just get shot out of the sky by heat seeking missiles.

  • "...which include Pentium class processors" Just what we need - script kiddies being able to access our B-2 bombers. [slashdot.org]
  • by peter303 (12292) on Monday July 14, 2008 @04:23PM (#24187647)
    With one MEGABYTE of ferris-core memory. Five redundant computers. The shuttle prgram was late getting started and they didnt want to changes the software.

    "And they made fun of vacuum tube computers in MIGs."
    • by VAXcat (674775)

      Ferris core? Is the memory arranged in a big wheel, where the bytes ride up and down in little swinging seats? Or, maybe you meant ferrite core...

    • With one MEGABYTE of ferris-core memory.

      Bueller?... Bueller?

  • Probably not x86 (Score:5, Informative)

    by Henriok (6762) on Monday July 14, 2008 @04:27PM (#24187723)

    It's "Pentium class", not "Pentium". I would bet my money on this comptuer being PowerPC based, probably PowerPC 74xx based, also known as "G4" of Macintosh fame. There are _a_lot_ of PowerPC based avionics, and cutting edge airplanes like Eurofighter, Gripen and F-22 have multiple PowerPC based systems doing all kinds of stuff. When doing embedded electronics for the military you are not going far pitching Intel stuff. You are going to use hardware from manufacturers that can guarantee parts that'll keep being manufactured over many years and are harndened to endure rapid heat, cold, moist and preassure fluctuations. Intel are doing commodity products for low end table environments. Look to manufacturers like Freescale for the stable and durable stuff.

  • by heroine (1220) on Monday July 14, 2008 @04:32PM (#24187801) Homepage

    They should have written all the flight control in Ruby & made it an AJAX web application that runs on Firefox on an iPhone. That would make it zillions of times faster than that old C code & Pentiums, right?

  • The demands of military grade computing are VERY different from the demands of your typical desktop/server.

    Forget the tasks they're doing - those are essentially the same as you or I just for a different problem domain. The real issues are: thermal, power, 'ruggedness', tempest, EMP protection, parts being available for years (or decades by preference).

    This isn't really news...

  • The most interesting thing about B-2 is that it purportedly uses electrogravitics and that it also charges its leading sections of wings to reduce the drag.

    Here's what Bill Gunston, one of the most respected aviation journalists has to say on the topic (his bio is here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_Gunston [wikipedia.org] )

    I have numerous documents, all published openly in the United States, which purport to explain how the B-2 is even stranger - far stranger - than it appears. Most are articles published in commercia

    • Riight, a revolution in physics and technology that would rival quantum mechanics and the USAF is sitting on it and using it to mildly enhance a score of strategic bombers.

      Tell me another one!

  • by Christopher_G_Lewis (260977) on Monday July 14, 2008 @04:36PM (#24187873) Homepage

    Well, given this http://www.sandia.gov/LabNews/LN12-18-98/intel_story.htm [sandia.gov] was in 1998, and about 10 years of development and testing, I guess we're finally seeing CPU's on the B2's that will actually allow them to fly through some of the massive radiation/electrical crap that they would be generating.

  • by eebra82 (907996) on Monday July 14, 2008 @04:37PM (#24187897) Homepage
    Those of you who have read some about Intel's coming Larrabee GPU know that it consists of many Pentium cores. The thing is, these cores aren't as old as one may think.

    When the Pentium core became obsolete, Intel gave the technology to the U.S. military, which in turn developed it further and added bug fixes. So it's not really technology from the 90's only, because it has been in development for quite some time.

    Additionally, old technology has the advantage of being used so much that virtually everything is known about the chip, including bugs. Therefore, it is much safer to work with such a chip rather than going for the latest Core 2 Duo.
  • The Stealth Bomber's mission is to deliver nuke bombs inside Soviet territory. It's not really that good at anything else. Though it does get used for other missions, since the US needs to justify spending $2.2 BILLION on each one.

    Upgrading the B2 to the 1990s is just keeping a 1980s corporate welfare programme for another decade, even while letting it float a decade behind in technology. I guess someone's got to buy all those old Pentiums, or Intel might go out of business.

    • by Spy Handler (822350) on Monday July 14, 2008 @06:43PM (#24189337) Homepage Journal
      "The Stealth Bomber's mission is to deliver nuke bombs inside Soviet territory. It's not really that good at anything else. Though it does get used for other missions, since the US needs to justify spending $2.2 BILLION on each one."

      It's quite good at dropping large bombloads on places, other than Soviet Union, that are defended by SAMs and radar-guided AAA, and avoid getting shot down.

      No other aircraft in the world can do this. F-117 can do the "avoid getting shot down" part, but not the large bombload part.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Eil (82413)

      Wow, cynical much?

      The last century taught us a very important lesson that our military and civilian leaders hopefully will not forget: it is far easier to try to stay on top of technology and keep the military forces current than suddenly ramp up training and technology only when a threat appears.

      While I strongly disagree with this administration's (ab)use of the our nation's armed forces and the government contractors who are becoming billionaires because of it, please understand that the military has many

  • by advocate_one (662832) on Monday July 14, 2008 @05:15PM (#24188375)
    You wish to drop the bomb: Cancel or Allow?
  • by ryanisflyboy (202507) * on Tuesday July 15, 2008 @01:39AM (#24192455) Homepage Journal

    As the article mentions, if there is a malfunction of the B2 Spirit's computer system (either in sensors or the system itself) the pilots must eject or be killed. There was a video, not available any more, explaining that the computer is the reason why the airplane doesn't spin out of control and crash. If it goes offline it takes just a few seconds before you're toast. This apparently happened once or twice during early development while they worked out the kinks in the software (sorry, can't find any current proof of this). The only B2 that has crashed (that we know of) crashed due to bad sensor input to the computer (if that is really the truth):

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/B-2_Spirit#Incidents_and_accidents [wikipedia.org]

    When you've got a billion dollars flying around at very high speeds, with some nuclear weapons on-board, and a couple of highly-trained pilots... you need to be 100% sure the system doesn't go off-line resulting in a near instant vehicle loss. It is also well known that spacecraft and aircraft use technologies that are actually very advanced, but might appear on the surface as old. The amount of materials research that goes in to these things costs in the multitudes of billions. It is very important the H-bombs drop where they are supposed to, and when. It is very scary, and the only way to test all the moving parts together is to start a nuclear war. As the SysAdmins say: "Not if, but when."

    Here are some more details (may be a bit redundant):
    http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Preliminary_Design_Review_Of_New_B_2_Bomber_Computer_Architecture_Completed_999.html [spacewar.com]

  • The laugh's on you (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Tom (822) on Tuesday July 15, 2008 @04:29AM (#24193287) Homepage Journal

    The military isn't "behind" in development - the rest of us are behind in testing and quality.

    Yeah, you laugh that they use CPUs an order of magnitude slower than your notebook. But they can't afford a BSOD, a floating-point error or any of the other nonsense that you put up with every day. Their processors might be slower, but I wouldn't bet that - taking all things into account - their total productivity is.

    Software quality on the "bleeding edge", where most of us live, is abysmal, and that's putting it very nicely. Regular users are beta-testers, and that's if they're lucky. There is software being sold today that shouldn't qualify as an alpha version. When's the last time you bought a game, just for an extreme example, that did not already have a patch available before the box was on sale the first day?

    That's nonsense you can't afford in a billion-dollar plane with nuclear weapons on board.

What the world *really* needs is a good Automatic Bicycle Sharpener.

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