LOGISTICS AND MAINTENANCE
F-35 Maintenance Software Comes Under Fire
The subpar performance of the F-35 logistics information system has been a concern for years. But it has now drawn the attention of key lawmakers who got an earful from Joint Strike Fighter maintenance crews during a recent visit to Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.
“The committee received numerous complaints and concerns by F-35 maintenance and operational personnel regarding the limitations, poor performance, poor design, and overall unsuitability of the ALIS software in its current form,” said the House Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on tactical air and land forces in its markup of the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act.
ALIS is the autonomic logistics information system that is hooked up to each F-35 to monitor every component of the aircraft and to alert operators of any breakdowns. The complaints heard by members of Congress range from the user-unfriendliness of the software and how slowly it responds to queries, to the high frequency of false alarms.
Military aviation experts said some of these issues are temporary and should be expected in new programs. Glitches like too many false alarms should be solved over time as the technology matures. Other shortcomings of the system appear to be more substantial and might take years to fix.
The F-35 program office and prime contractor Lockheed Martin assert that many of the current deficiencies will be plugged in future software releases. Program Executive Officer Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan traveled to Eglin this week to personally investigate the issues raised by the committee. “A lot of attention is being paid to ALIS,” said F-35 spokesman Joe DellaVedova.
By Bogdan’s own account, the system will have to dig itself out of a deep hole. “ALIS has a long way to go,” he told subcommittee Chairman Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio. “It is a complicated, five million lines of code piece of equipment that we started treating like a piece of support equipment. It's not. It's an integral part of the weapon system.”
A major effort began two years to “change fundamentally the way we develop ALIS,” Bogdan said. “We've applied the same techniques we used in developing software on the airplane to now developing software in ALIS. It's just going to take us some time to realize those results.”
One of ALIS’ most vaunted features — the ability to predict when a component will fail and will need to be replaced — appears to be nowhere close to coming to fruition. According to sources close to the program, ALIS doesn’t have enough of the data that would allow maintainers to forecast part failures based on how components are used and how they perform in flight. It is not clear when the prognostics capability will work.
Asignificant concern for the Marine Corps — the first service scheduled to deploy the F-35 — is that ALIS is too incomplete for operational use, which means that a lot of the information crews will need to fix and maintain the aircraft will not be available so they will depend on remote tech support from Lockheed Martin technicians in Fort Worth, Texas. Experts said that process could end up being time consuming and increase aircraft downtime.
ALIS was conceived so that when maintainers have to remove an aircraft part and replace it, they would have easy and instant access to instructions and drawings. ALIS also would help them interpret any failure codes that come off the aircraft and determine what procedures to employ.
The Marine Corps will be the first service to deploy the short-takeoff vertical landing version of the F-35 later this year, and it has chosen to declare the airplane operational even with a less-than-optimal ALIS system. Maintenance crews aboard big-deck amphibious ships will be dependent on technical support from Texas if ALIS is unable to provide the information they need.
Software engineers at Lockheed Martin are rushing to deliver ALIS upgrades to the F-35 fleet, said Sharon Parsley, spokeswoman for Lockheed Martin Mission Systems and Training.
“The F-35 military services understand that ALIS will continue to gain capability along with each release of block software on our newest aircraft,” she told National Defense in a statement.
Parsley said the Eglin maintainers who gave ALIS bad reviews were using the earliest versions, known as Block 1B and 2A. The jets that are now flying at two bases in Arizona — Luke Air Force Base and Marine Corps Air Station Yuma — have the latest version of software called 2B.
A new update, ALIS 2.0.0, was delivered to F-35 locations, including Eglin in March, she said. “We expect many of the issues the airmen there are experiencing to improve.” Two other releases currently are in development, ALIS 2.0.1 and 2.0.2. The full ALIS capability is due in 2017, said Parsley, “in line with the conclusion of the F-35 system development and demonstration program phase.”
An underlying question is whether the Marines will be able to get by with the 2.0.1 version of ALIS that still lacks the capability to manage life-limited parts. That feature is expected in ALIS 2.0.2, which is the version that the Air Force needs in order to declare its F-35A operational next year.
The software eventually will have to undergo rigorous tests in combat-like conditions by the Pentagon’s independent test and evaluation office. Operational tests of the Marine Corps’ Block 2B mission software, along with ALIS, were supposed to take place a year ago but were delayed. Testers still do not believe the system is ready, and Pentagon procurement officials agreed.
Turner’s language in the NDAA, meanwhile, could mean yet another probe of ALIS, this one by the Government Accountability Office. The scrutiny will persist, especially in light of the feedback lawmakers got at Eglin. The frustration that members saw in F-35 maintainers is likely to stick with them as such interactions tend to be rare.
During an April 14 subcommittee hearing, Turner said he was “taken aback” by the operators’ critiques of ALIS. “I was also shocked that there's no spell check,” he said. That means users have to manually identify misspelling and correct errors, which causes delays and potentially could put lives at risk. Crews also were unhappy with the reporting system for the availability of parts or status of the inventory.
Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., a former military aviator, said she, too, was alarmed by what she heard. Her impression was that the system is very labor intensive, slow to respond, and too bulky for use on ships. Duckworth said it was “troubling” that aircraft crews aboard ships at sea will have to reach back to Fort Worth for logistical support.
Bogdan agreed that the transportability of ALIS is a major issue. “Today ALIS sits in a squadron and it's a rack of computers that weighs probably 800 to 1,000 pounds,” he told Duckworth. “We recognized a year-and-a-half ago that was not going to work for deploying forces.” Lockheed is designing a deployable version that will be ready for the Marine Corps in July, he said. It is a two-man portable system made up of three or four different racks.
In the future, Bogdan said, ALIS will be made in a deployable configuration. “We will get rid of the old thousand-pound racks that we have at the squadrons now.”
ALIS is now deployed with more than a hundred operational F-35s from the Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, United Kingdom, Australia and the Netherlands.
F-35 aircraft ready for takeoff at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz. (Lockheed Martin)