Air Force Official: F-35 Still Facing Maintenance Challenges

By Allyson Versprille

Public Domain

The Air Force is continuing to work through several maintenance issues in its F-35 joint strike fighter program, including getting the next increment of the autonomic logistics information system ready for initial operational capability, a senior service leader said April 28.

The service's F-35A needs to have the latest version of ALIS, version 2.0.2, ready ahead of declaring IOC sometime between Aug. 1 and Dec. 31. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, commander of Air Force Materiel Command, said the concept behind ALIS is brilliant. The system would give the service greater agility because it would inform support crew of maintenance needs — enabling them to have the right parts available upon landing — and would notify suppliers of shortages.

But "as you start to see just how challenging that is and all of the interfaces that are involved in that, and then now introduce the cybersecurity requirements that go into it … it's almost as challenging as building a fifth-gen aircraft," Pawlikowski told reporters during a Defense Writers Group breakfast in Washington, D.C.

Officials have already said the system is approximately 60 days behind schedule. "This version of ALIS combines the management of F135 engine maintenance within ALIS and tracks all the life-limited parts on each and every F-35 aircraft," said Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, program executive officer for F-35. "The development of these capabilities is proving to be difficult because they require integration with Lockheed Martin’s and Pratt & Whitney’s enterprise resource planning systems, or the 'back end' of ALIS," he said in his written testimony at a recent hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The Air Force is working through the challenges with ALIS including the cybersecurity and integration problems, Pawlikowski said. "The question is … how much is enough now that we see how challenging this is, and how much do I really need to do to have that agility?" she said. The Air Force is focused on getting the system to a form where the operator can reliably count on it and use it for IOC, she said.

Additionally, the service is looking at adjusting expectations for what it wants ALIS to do at IOC, Pawlikowski said. That does not mean changing the system requirement, but reevaluating how the Air Force interprets some of the specific details within that requirement, she said. "I think it's a little 'r' adjustment not a big 'R' adjustment."

Another F-35 support challenge centers around contracted maintainers working on the aircraft at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, she said.

Due to a shortage of Air Force maintainers as a result of keeping the A-10 Thunderbolt II in its fleet, the Air Force has asked Lockheed Martin to provide contractors to Luke to work on the F-35. Currently, the company has taken over maintenance of an entire wing.

"We're not looking to try to do that in the long term," Pawlikowski said. "What we're trying to do is … to give ourselves the time to build the organic workforce, the airmen, to be able to do that maintenance."

However, putting together a cadre of maintainers experienced enough to work on the F-35 program could taken seven to nine years, she said. "It's going to take us probably until the beginning of the next decade to get caught back up."

At the same time, paying for those contractors — which is tens of millions of dollars more expensive per year — was not included in the funds allocated in the 2017 budget request for operations and maintenance costs to keep the A-10 in the fleet, she said. "We are having to carve that out as we balance all of the other O&M costs we have."

Another constant worry with hiring contractor maintainers is the potential to pull active-duty and reserve airmen away from the service. "So far we are not seeing a serious strain, but … that is a continual challenge for the Air Force. We are facing that right now with the commercial airlines," she said.

 The Air Force has had discussions with Lockheed regarding this problem and hasn't seen any major issues so far, she said. But "we want to make sure we're not essentially just creating a bigger hole for ourselves."

Meanwhile, Pawlikowski said the Air Force is continuing efforts to field directed energy weapons.

In the past, there have been two main challenges with directed energy: achieving technological maturity and having realistic expectations, she said.

However, with advances in solid-state lasers, "I think we're on the cusp of actually being able to field a true laser weapon within the next five to six years."

Pawlikowski noted Air Force Special Operations Command's efforts to place a directed energy weapon on its AC-130J Ghostrider gunship by 2020. There is also potential for using such weapons on fifth-generation fighters, she said.

"We've got an activity that's going forward … to put a laser on a fighter aircraft, not to blow up scud missiles or to win in a dogfight, but as an air defense," she said.

Photo: Air Force

Topics: Aviation, Joint Strike Fighter

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