High-Tech Aviation Logistics Systems Both Blessing and Curse
In military aviation, as in most businesses, logistics is everything. And some of the Pentagon’s most advanced and expensive aircraft have brought that issue to the fore.
Cutting-edge aircraft like the F-35 joint strike fighter and the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor have tested the Defense Department’s and contractors’ competence in supporting fleets operating around the world.
The Pentagon has acquired dazzling information systems that promise 21st century automation across all aspects of aviation maintenance, repairs and fleet support. But integrating these systems into military programs and operations has proven tougher than anticipated.
For the F-35, the answer to global fleet support is a massive logistics information system that does everything from predicting component malfunctions to ordering parts and ensuring suppliers have enough in stock.
Known as ALIS, the F-35 autonomic logistics information system has been a thorn in the side of the program for its complexity and dependence on the manufacturers — airframe maker Lockheed Martin and engine supplier Pratt & Whitney — to share data.
The senior official in charge of the F-35 program, Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, has characterized ALIS as the “long pole in the tent.”
Bodgan said the system is progressing along and should be bug-free in time for the Air Force to declare the aircraft operational later this year. Others are skeptical. “Challenges with ALIS remain,” defense acquisitions expert Michael J. Sullivan, of the Government Accountability Office, said March 23 at a House Armed Services Committee hearing.
“Although improvements have been made, ALIS continues to pose technical risks,” said Sullivan. “In addition to continuing software problems, our ongoing work indicates that the F-35 program faces other key challenges related to ALIS. For example, some equipment management data is inaccurate or incomplete and engine health information is not included in the current version of ALIS. In addition, the system may not be deployable and does not have a backup in case the hardware system were to fail.”
Bogdan explained that the problems are rooted in the “back end” of ALIS. That is where it connects with Lockheed’s and Pratt’s SAP supply chain management systems. ALIS also has to eventually be integrated with each partner country’s logistics systems.
“Today the engine information in ALIS is separate from the rest of ALIS,” Bogdan said March 7 at an industry conference. “We have to bring in that information, and that has proven to be very tricky.”
The back end of the system that connects to Lockheed Martin also has to be adjusted as the program adds a new capability called “life limited parts tracking.” Each part has a certain service life, Bogdan explained.
“If you move a part from airplane to airplane, you have to be able to track how long that part has been flying. So when it comes up to the end of its life you have to do an inspection or take it off.” That is a very complicated undertaking in a fleet of 3,000 airplanes with a global supply chain, he said. “In the next increment of ALIS we are going to implement that. It’s going to require serious changes on the SAP systems.” Both Lockheed’s and Pratt’s SAP systems are “proving to be very difficult connecting with ALIS. That’s where the risk is.”
The aircraft and engine manufacturers insist this can be done.
“Pratt & Whitney is working with Lockheed Martin to provide three key propulsion-related capabilities in ALIS 2.0.2,” said Pratt spokesman Matthew Bates. The first is prognostics health management to monitor engine components. The second capability gives maintainers the ability to order parts and manage inventory. The final capability is “time and cycle tracking,” which manages total life accumulation on the engine components and handles inspections of installed parts.
The current version of ALIS is 2.0.1 is in use by the Marine Corps. The Air Force requires the next upgrade, 2.0.2, in order to declare its first F-35 squadron ready for action.
Jeff Babione, F-35 general manager at Lockheed Martin, said the integration of Pratt’s system is complex. “It will be installed in the latter part of the ALIS build,” he told reporters March 15. “We’re trying to get the communications working between Pratt and Lockheed Martin.”
In the V-22 program, the Marine Corps also has turned to an information technology solution to plug long-standing gaps in fleet readiness. For years the Marine Corps has struggled to keep enough V-22s combat ready as demand for the aircraft soared. This led to the installation of a new logistics system that keeps track worldwide of the entire fleet.
The Naval Air Systems Command and Boeing opened the V-22 “readiness operations center” in January 2015 at Boeing’s manufacturing plant in Ridley Park, Pennsylvania. It uses data analytics to look for anomalies and predict maintenance and logistical issues in a fleet of more than 280 Ospreys worldwide, said Boeing spokeswoman Jessica Carlton. “With access to maintenance data, historical supply data and aircraft recorded data, we can analyze flights, apply different mathematical models, and develop algorithms that spotlight trends and problems,” she said.
Predictive analytics is a central feature, she noted. Maintenance and platform experts, mathematicians, and software engineers take a customer's historical data of the V-22 and use it to forecast future maintenance needs. This would allow “condition-based maintenance versus regularly scheduled maintenance that might not be needed,” said Carlton.
Marine Corps leaders expect fleet readiness troubles to continue, however, as combatant commanders increase the demand for V-22s. “Right now we only have 14 of our 18 projected V-22 squadrons,” Gen. John Paxton Jr., assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, told lawmakers this month. “We struggle sometimes to get all the parts out there and then to keep the pilots trained.”
Photo: Defense Dept.