Troubled Logistics System Critical to F-35’s Future

By Valerie Insinna
It has been widely reported that the Marine Corps is racing to ready the F-35 for initial operational capability this summer. Less well known — but just as crucial — is the work being done to prepare the joint strike fighter’s fleet management system, which will support everything from mission planning, ordering spare parts and maintenance.

Like the plane itself, the Autonomic Logistics Information System, or ALIS, has had its share of problems, including delays and limitations to its functionality. The office of the director of operational test and evaluation characterized the system as inefficient and difficult to use in its 2014 report.

“Overall, ALIS is behind schedule, has several capabilities delayed or deferred to later builds, and has been fielded with deficiencies,” the report stated. Although some issues have been fixed as new versions of the hardware and software are released, others have lingered and new problems have popped up. In some cases, the system “requires the use of workarounds for deficiencies awaiting correction.”  

F-35 manufacturer Lockheed Martin is developing and fielding ALIS in increments, in a similar fashion to the aircraft’s software. All three U.S. services planning to purchase the F-35 — the Marine Corps, Air Force and Navy — will use the system to maintain their jets and manage its logistics enterprise. It will reach its full level of capability in 2017.

Lockheed and the F-35 joint program office plan to finish testing of a new iteration of the system, ALIS 2.0.1, in time for the July IOC date. The testing and release schedule leaves no margin for delays, the DOT&E report said.

“We have had multiple conversations with our JPO counterparts as well as our service counterparts, and they are fully onboard,” said Mark Perreault, Lockheed’s ALIS development director. “We’re all working a coordinated effort to ensure that we meet the needs of the Marine Corps in July.”

However, he added that “there’s very little buffer” in the schedule.

Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher C. Bogdan, the government’s F-35 program executive officer, said in an emailed statement that he is concerned that ALIS 2.0.1 and 2.0.2 are slightly behind schedule.

“Lockheed Martin has made improvements in ALIS software development, testing and fielding, so we are working hard to make up some of the original delays,” he said.

There were no surprises in the DOT&E report, Bogdan said. “All of the issues mentioned were well known to us and our industry partners.” Nonetheless, the program achieved significant progress in 2014, he added.

ALIS is tied not only to logistics and maintenance, but also to operations. Pilots can plan and debrief missions using the system. Maintainers employ it to examine the health of the F-35, diagnose problems and guide them through repairs. It also supports spare parts management and customer service queries.

ALIS has experienced more problems in development and testing than is usual in part because it is so complex, said Mandy Smithberger, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project On Government Oversight. Flaws or weaknesses in the ALIS system may increase the risk of fielding F-35s this summer, she added.

“ALIS is the core to making sure that the F-35 functions,” she said. “It’s so dependent on this technology, and so having all of these workarounds really limits operational capability.”

Lockheed’s program manager for the Marine Corps’ F-35B, Art Tomassetti, stressed the importance of the system in a January interview with National Defense. In order to take advantage of new mission planning and diagnostic features, the service needs at least the 2.0 version of ALIS — which is slightly older than 2.0.1 and is still being deployed to the operational fleet, he said.

Fielding ALIS 2.0.1 before testing is complete could result in the need for workarounds to support operations, the DOT&E report said.

One of Smithberger’s chief concerns is that Lockheed is building new layers of fixes into ALIS without doing enough iterative testing to ensure they don’t cause problems elsewhere, she said.

It’s good to correct problems in the system, “but if doing all these fixes means that you need to go back and do testing, the schedule needs to allow for doing that … and not continuing to defer capabilities,” she said.

That mode of development would also ratchet up cost and the number of retrofits needed to mend deficiencies in the system.

“I think the scariest thing is just imagining as a pilot that you’re looking at this system and you can’t trust what you read,” she said. “You have to be concerned about it.”

The DOT&E report likewise suggested that the program ensure software upgrades are tested on operationally representative hardware and that testing is completed before fielding operational units.

ALIS 2.0.1 is undergoing internal testing at Lockheed’s facility in Orlando, Perreault said in February. It is slated to be delivered to the government in April for flight tests and logistics test and evaluation.

The biggest difference between it and older versions of ALIS is new hardware, which breaks up the huge system into smaller, 200-pound modules that troops can more easily transport while deployed, Perreault said.

“They have wheels that come with them, and soldiers can then carry them from one location to the other without the use of mechanical devices,” he said. “Before they had to be … put onto a pallet or something like that.”

In the coming months, Lockheed will host a group of Marine Corps users and test whether two maintainers can break down the system, carry it to a different location and rebuild it within seven hours, he said. “We’ve proven already in our internal testing that can be done within that seven-hour timeframe.”
ALIS 2.0.1 also adds a software function called the “deployable spares pack,” which allows users to specify which parts will be taken on a deployment, he said. That will make it easier for the military to manage its inventory.

The current version of the system, ALIS 2.0, was delivered in September for flight testing at Edwards Air Force Base, California, and Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland. By March, ALIS 2.0 will be fielded at all of the operational bases, Perreault said.

Preliminary results from the logistics test and evaluation of ALIS 2.0 yielded five critical deficiencies and 53 serious deficiencies, the DOT&E report said. One of the critical problems results in F-35 aircraft incorrectly being listed as “not mission capable” in the squadron health management function.

Right now, ALIS is configured so that the overview health management screen classifies aircraft as “not mission capable” if there is any mission that particular F-35 cannot perform, Perreault said. However, “if you dig a little deeper,” screens displaying more specific information about the plane will show what is wrong. For instance, an aircraft may appear to be unfit for operations, but a different screen will reveal that it is only not suited to nighttime missions because of problems with the night vision system.

“There are processes in place, and [users] are fully aware of what the different screens are providing to them, so it’s not like it’s confusing them on a daily basis,” he said. The issue does not prevent users from signing off on repairs or preparing for flights.

Lockheed is in discussions with the services to determine a better way to display that information, but “to be honest with you, they haven’t actually come to an agreement,” he said.

That illustrates one of the biggest challenges of building ALIS. “We’re dealing with [an] … environment where we’ve got different services and different platforms, but we wanted to build one solution to keep it affordable,” he said. The Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force often have different ways of doing logistics and maintenance, and the system must be able to accommodate them.

Perreault hesitated to use the word “deficiency” to describe any of the issues with ALIS, but added that the system is still evolving and maturing. Some of the workarounds necessary to operate current versions of the system will no longer be needed in later iterations, he said.

For example, because of security concerns, sometimes maintainers must put data on a CD and walk it over to another user instead of transferring it from computer to computer. Eventually, maintainers will be able to send information directly, he said.

Some of those changes are already taking place. Bogdan noted that data from ALIS’ Exceedance Management System was processed manually using CDs prior to the release of 2.0.

By and large, the pilots, maintainers and suppliers that operate ALIS are pleased with the improvements made in the 2.0 version, including faster response times, Perreault said.

Lockheed receives feedback directly from users during flight testing. It also holds “operator-user events” where the company brings in logistics and maintenance personnel to familiarize themselves with new versions of ALIS hardware and software, he said. “It allows them to ask those questions up front so that when we get to the bases, they’ll be familiar enough with it to understand any of the changes.”

Not all of ALIS’ capabilities were criticized in the DOT&E report. The system’s 2.0 release included a new piece of hardware called the portable maintenance device reader meant to cut down the time it takes to transfer data from an aircraft into ALIS.  “The fielded PMD readers have functioned as intended,” the report stated. Download time decreased from about an hour to less than five minutes.

The Air Force plans to field ALIS 2.0.2 in time for its own initial operational capability in July 2016. The service will use the same “deployable” hardware as the Marine Corps. The software, however, will contain a new feature called sub-squadron reporting, which allows the service to operate jets separately from their squadron while still allowing status reports and other data to be sent to the mother squadron.

Topics: Aviation, Joint Strike Fighter

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