Farnborough Air Show

Lockheed Martin Advances F-35’s Maintenance Backbone

 - June 7, 2016, 2:30 PM
The ALIS “system of systems” is an information technology infrastructure that captures and analyzes aircraft condition data from the F-35, supporting fleet operations, maintenance, fault-prediction and supply chain management. [Photo: Lockheed Martin]

Prime contractor Lockheed Martin says it is keeping to the current schedule to deliver a third and final development version of the F-35 Lightning II maintenance backbone—the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS). The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) has identified the ALIS system and completing F-35 mission systems software as “the most prominent, current technical risks” to the multinational fighter program.

The ALIS “system of systems” is an information technology infrastructure that captures and analyzes aircraft condition data from the F-35, supporting fleet operations, maintenance, fault-prediction and supply chain management. Lockheed Martin (Outdoor Exhibit 8; Hall 3, Stand A26) has committed to completing ALIS Version 3.0 when the F-35 system development and demonstration (SDD) phase ends in October 2017.

Nearer term, the company is focused on supporting the planned declaration this year of F-35A initial operational capability (IOC) by the U.S. Air Force. That will happen with Version 2.0.2 of ALIS, which as of mid-June was in the certification test phase, said Dave Scott, Lockheed Martin v-p training and logistics solutions business development.

“We will build the final development version—the full ALIS 3.0 capability—in 2017, coincident with the end of the SDD phase,” Scott told AIN in a recent interview. “We are tracking to that schedule, but most of our focus right now is on achieving the 2.0.2 configuration release and fully supporting the U.S. Air Force IOC capability. It’s very important to maintain that schedule and commitments.”

As the SDD phase winds down and as F-35 production deliveries to the U.S. military services and partner nations increase, the ALIS system—representing the long-term sustainment piece of the F-35 equation—is drawing more attention.

The F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO) “recognizes that ALIS is one of the most significant technical and schedule risks on the program,” Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, F-35 program executive officer, stated in testimony to a U.S. House Armed Services subcommittee in October. “For too long, the program treated this crucial element of the F-35 weapon system as a piece of support equipment instead of the very complex, software intensive, total logistics and maintenance system it is. We are now treating ALIS as if it were its own ‘weapon system.’”

ALIS is operating at 12 different sites, Scott said, including 10 on military bases in the U.S., one on board the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp, and one at Cameri Air Base, Italy, the site of an F-35 final assembly and checkout facility for the Italian air force.

The system hardware consists of three main components: a standard operating unit (SOU) or server used by each F-35 squadron; a central point of entry (CPE) at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, and eventually at each partner nation; and an Autonomic Logistics Operating Unit (ALOU) at Lockheed Martin’s Fort Worth, Texas, location.

Describing the workflow, Scott said that maintainers download health and diagnostic data from the F-35 using a handheld Toughbook ruggedized computer, or “portable maintenance aid.” The data from individual aircraft is entered into the squadron’s SOU and sent to the national CPE, which connects the bases and distributes software. The data is further communicated to the ALOU, a computer server that collects all F-35 fleet information.

“Similar to the way that commercial airlines and companies maintain a worldwide understanding and trend analysis on [their] fleets, to a degree we will be able to do that—allocate spare parts on the fly, automatically connect in to our spares ordering system or back through the supply chain to build new parts,” Scott explained.

First among the U.S. services, the Marine Corps declared IOC of the F-35B short takeoff and vertical landing variant of the fighter with a deployable version of ALIS 2.0.1 in July 2015. Version 2.0.2 for all of the services adds a planning tool for deployments, enabling maintainers to create packages of support equipment, test equipment and spares to travel with the aircraft; and a networking capability that allows them to stay connected or to connect periodically to the main ALIS systems in order to upload and download data. Another capability provides for tracking of life-limited aircraft parts “with a great degree of fidelity,” Scott said.

Version 2.0.2 also combines the management of F135 engine maintenance within ALIS. In March testimony before the same House tactical air and land forces subcommittee, Bogdan said this capability and life-limited parts tracking posed a schedule risk. “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,” Bogdan stated.

Pratt & Whitney in a March statement said it was working with Lockheed Martin and the JPO “to accelerate the test schedules and to ensure an ALIS 2.0.2 release with propulsion will not impact airworthiness, aircraft and engine availability, or spare parts management,” Defense News reported.

Deferred Capabilities

The progression of ALIS to a mature system has not gone exactly as planned. In its Fiscal Year 2015 annual report, released in January, the DOD’s Office of the Director for Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) devoted several pages of its F-35 program summary to ALIS, describing numerous system issues.

“Although the program adjusted both schedule and incremental development build plans for ALIS hardware and software multiple times in 2014, it held the schedule more stable in 2015 by deferring capabilities to later software versions,” the DOT&E said. “The program office released several new versions of the software used in ALIS in 2015. However, each new version of software, while adding some new capability, failed to resolve all of the deficiencies identified in earlier releases.”

A planned radio frequency data link capability that would enable the F-35 to transmit information to the ground while airborne—called the Prognostics and Health Management downlink—was planned for release in ALIS 2.0.0, but has been “deferred…indefinitely because of security concerns,” according to the DOT&E.

More recently, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), reporting to Congress in April, flagged several “functionality” issues with ALIS that could, if unresolved, present cost and schedule implications as the F-35 program approaches key milestones. The watchdog agency also questioned the accuracy of a DOD estimate that ALIS will cost $16.7 billion over the 56-year service life of the fighter, including the $562 million cost of developing the system.

A Pentagon-commissioned study in 2013 estimated that schedule delays and performance issues could add anywhere from $20 billion to $100 billion in additional costs, the agency said.

Before declaring IOC of the F-35B, the Marine Corps tested ALIS aboard the 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, California, 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.

There have been other, recent exercises that have helped prove ALIS deployability, Scott said. In February, testers from Edwards Air Force Base in California deployed with the system to Mountain Home AFB, Idaho, which is not currently an F-35 operating base. In June, the 34th Fighter Squadron at Hill AFB, Utah, conducted F-35 sorties at Mountain Home AFB.

“All of these are deployments to test the ability of the F-35 and the ability of ALIS to meet the deployment, which means technical capabilities, the handling of the equipment, the ruggedized nature, the ability to set up off-site at these different locations,” said Scott.

Among other issues, the GAO said maintainers it 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, the agency said.

“The ALOU has off-site backups,” Scott asserted, when asked about system redundancy. “It’s a critical information technology system so it’s highly redundant with backups.”

Scott continued: “Right now, per the contract and what has been funded, there is only the one ALOU, located in Texas. There are discussions going on about ‘maybe there is a need for another one,’ but it’s fully backed up with redundant systems and power supplies associated with it.”

It is also possible to work off-line on ALIS without connecting to the CPE or the ALOU for up to 30 days, depending on the squadron’s operational tempo, by keeping information stored on the SOU. “The system is designed for deployability, for remote operations, for disconnected operations for a period of time,” Scott said.

In a statement responding to the GAO’s findings, the 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.”

Scott concluded: “The feedback that the contractor team is getting from the users, [and] from the maintenance personnel who are using ALIS every day, is it’s a wonderful system that is maturing rapidly and providing capabilities that they currently don’t have. As we make improvements and as we make the planned updates to the system, we’re seeing a lot more positive comments.”