Information Overload Could Complicate F-35 Deployments Aboard Ships

By Sandra I. Erwin

 The Marine Corps is eyeing the first real-world deployment of F-35Bs aboard big-deck ships around 2018. Marine and Navy officials are confident the ships will be ready to handle the next-generation aircraft, but there are still questions about how the fleet will manage the massive loads of data that will be generated by the joint strike fighter.

The F-35 has been called a flying supercomputer, as it is underpinned by 8 million lines of code, in addition to several more million lines of code associated with its support systems, notably the software that manages fleet logistics.

“The systems are eye watering,” said Rear Adm. Peter Fanta, the Navy’s director of surface warfare. Fanta is a key member of a high-level team that is overseeing the daunting task of making sure big-deck amphibious ships are properly equipped for F-35B operations.

The aircraft can take off from short runways and can land vertically like a helicopter. Big-deck vessels have for decades hosted the 1980s Harrier short-takeoff vertical landing attack fighter that soon will be replaced with the F-35B. Marine aviation will be jumping ahead several generations of technology.

New ships will be built with the necessary bells and whistles to be F-35 compatible. The USS Wasp was used for F-35B development testing and received new upgrades for upcoming operations tests. One of the Navy’s brand-new amphibious assault ships, the USS America, will be retrofit beginning next month. It will spend 40 weeks in the shipyard to receive F-35-specific modifications, including a host of advanced new weapons, sensors and flight deck upgrades, said Rear Adm. David Gale, Navy program executive for ships. The next ship in the class, the LHA-7 USS Tripoli — now under construction and due for delivery in 2019 — is being built with F-35-specific features.

Ships will require vastly improved information and communications systems so they can receive and process unprecedented loads of data — not just from the F-35 but also from new Marine helicopters that are being equipped with advanced targeting and data collection systems. “I need to integrate more data, that’s what I’m going to concentrate on next,” Fanta said. “We are in the early phase of studying how to integrate that.” A group of Navy and Marine Corps officials from across the aviation and surface warfare communities have formed an “F-35 integration council” to deal with these issues.

During a meeting with reporters April 8, Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Robert Walsh, director of expeditionary warfare, said the introduction of F-35s aboard amphibious ships is “exciting but a real challenge.” For the first time, two ships will have fifth-generation aircraft. “By fiscal year 2018: we’ll have the first ever F-35s deployed.” But he foresees hurdles as these complex new airplanes are dropped into unfamiliar and logistically difficult ship-deck environments. “The integration council is really drilling down into what those requirements are,” Walsh said. One of the hardest problems is going to be command, control, communications and information operations, he said. “It’s not going to be how we operated the Harrier. This is fifth generation. … What’s the requirement for the F-35 to be able to communicate and disseminate data across the battle force?”

Fanta said he is certain that there will be “disappointments” in those first deployments as the fleet goes through a learning curve. “And we will not be able to bring that data completely onboard in that first deployment,” Fanta said. “We will learn where our holes are in our first deployment.” Aircraft will “talk to each other, will pass data back and forth to the ship,” but there will be many information-intensive operations that “we have to figure out how to do without driving the ship to its knees.”

Marine aviation experts said that a potentially huge challenge for F-35 operations at sea will be the integration of the aircraft maintenance support system, known as ALIS, or autonomic logistics information system. It is a highly complex system that also requires massive bandwidth, which is a tight commodity aboard ships. ALIS, regardless of where a ship might be at sea, would have to continuously update and talk back to F-35 maintainers in the United States. If ALIS is not properly integrated aboard ships, industry sources told National Defense, it could create crushing maintenance headaches for the fleet. They caution that Marines should address this problem so they don’t relive the painful early deployments of the V-22 Osprey, which had many logistics and readiness problems because the support systems were not in place and the logistics system was not mature enough to handle operations.

Topics: Aviation, Joint Strike Fighter, Expeditionary Warfare, Shipbuilding, Surface Ships

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