The F-35 Lightning II is scheduled to enter full-rate production in 2019, but its maintenance and logistics backbone is at risk of not being fully ready, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) warns in a new report. The Department of Defense (DOD), while aware of the risks, “does not have a plan to prioritize and address them in a holistic manner,” the agency adds.
In the April report to Congress, the GAO flagged several “functionality” issues with the F-35 Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS) that could, if unresolved, present cost and schedule implications as the program approaches key milestones. The U.S. Air Force plans to declare initial operational capability (IOC) of the fighter this year, with the Navy following in 2018 and a full-rate production decision due the next year. The Marine Corps declared IOC with its F-35B variant and a deployable version of the ALIS system last July—without proving the system could be packaged, moved and deployed in ruggedized transport cases.
Developed by F-35 prime contractor Lockheed Martin, ALIS is a hardware and software infrastructure that collects and analyzes health and maintenance data for individual airframes as well as for the larger fleet. According to the GAO, ALIS information flows from standard operating units (SOUs) at each F-35 base to a central point of entry (CPE) that connects the bases to a computer server known as the Autonomic Logistics Operating Unit (ALOU). The “system of systems” is designed to support F-35 operations, maintenance, fault prognostics and parts deliveries over the 56-year lifecycle of the fighter.
Before declaring IOC of the F-35B, the Marine Corps tested the ALIS system aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp, but the tests did not assess deployability and were not considered “operationally representative,” the GAO said. In December, the service participated in an exercise near the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, Calif., that included a short-range, domestic deployability test. “According to DOD officials, the results were positive in that the Marine Corps transported the system to Twentynine Palms from its Yuma base and set it up within two hours; however, this test did not include long-range, overseas, ship-based or combat scenarios,” the agency related.
Pilots, maintainers and officers at three of five F-35 sites the GAO visited raised doubts that the system can be deployed as planned to forward locations. “For example, users are concerned about the large server size and connectivity requirements, and whether the system’s infrastructure can maintain power and withstand a high-temperature environment,” the agency said.
Among other issues, users the GAO interviewed were concerned that with just one national CPE and a lone ALOU, the system lacks redundancy. There is “no backup system for continuity of operations if either of these servers were to fail. Specifically, squadron leadership at two sites expressed concern about how the loss of electricity due to weather or other damaging situations could adversely affect fleet operations if either the central point of entry or the ALOU went offline.” Further, the system presents a security risk in that classified information is moved from the aircraft to the network on compact discs, and the ALOU and CPE could also be vulnerable.
In a statement responding to the GAO’s findings, the Pentagon’s F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO) said “there were no surprises” in the report, and that ALIS-associated issues are well known to the U.S. military services, international partners and industry. The program office initiated a “technical roadmap” effort earlier this year to define ALIS priorities that will be completed this summer. It is also responding to other GAO recommendations on improving cost estimates and training on the system.
“As with any big and complex program, new discoveries, challenges and obstacles will occur,” the JPO said. “The F-35 is still in development, and this is the time when technical challenges are expected; however, we believe the combined government and industry team will resolve current issues and future discoveries. The team’s commitment to overcoming these challenges is unwavering and we will maximize the F-35’s full capability for the Warfighter.”