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Question Marks Remain Over F-35 Availability, Support

 - June 16, 2019, 5:00 AM
RAF and USAF servicemen review F-35maintenance data. (Photo: USAF)

With some 400 Lockheed Martin F-35s now delivered to nine countries, and unit costs for the conventional takeoff and landing F-35A version decreasing towards $80 million as forecast, attention is switching to operating cost and support issues for the stealthy jet. It’s a mixed picture. Operating cost looks promising. Support issues less so.

According to the Joint Program Office (JPO), the cost per flying hour of the F-35A in the fiscal year ending last September was $44,000 per hour. The JPO’s goal is to reduce that to $25,000 by 2025. That number is slightly lower than today’s F-16C/D, which costs $25,500. But another office in the Pentagon—Cost Analysis and Program Evaluation (CAPE)—doubts that $25,000 can be achieved. And other top Pentagon officials say the reducing trend is too slow.

The aircraft is meeting four out of eight reliability and maintenance (R&M) targets, including the most important such as mean flight hours between failure and maintenance man-hour per flight hour. Program officials say some of the other targets are unrealistic. They also note that more recent production aircraft have better R&M.

The F-35’s Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS) has had a troubled history. It supports maintenance and supply chain management with an unprecedented degree of automation and communication. It also extends to some aspects of operations, mission planning, and training. But it is taking a long time to mature. In 2015 the U.S. House Armed Services Committee said that it received “numerous complaints by F-35 maintenance and operational personnel regarding the limitations, poor performance, poor design, and overall unsuitability of the ALIS software in its current form.” A version that was supposed to be available for testing in 2010 did not do so until 2017. There were questions about deployability, because of the large server size, power, and connectivity requirements.

There have also been official concerns about the cybersecurity of the ALIS web-based distributed network. A plan to transmit maintenance data from aircraft that are inflight has been deferred.

In defense of ALIS, Lockheed Martin said that “expectations had to be managed” for a system that is evolving from being a diagnostic maintenance tool to performing prognostic aircraft health management. Some deficiencies were related to the limitations of the software onboard early F-35s and would be solved when the Block 3i/F aircraft entered service.

The operational integration of ALIS has led to concern that the F-35 is effectively grounded if ALIS doesn’t work. But a senior UK Royal Air Force officer with F-35 program experience told AIN that the aircraft can operate without ALIS. However, the subsequent need to enter the accumulated data is an onerous task, he added. A report by the watchdog U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) last April described “time-consuming manual workarounds” because ALIS capabilities were immature.

Questions over F-35 maintenance and supply chain management remain unresolved.
Questions over F-35 maintenance and supply chain management remain unresolved. (Photo: USAF)

One year ago, dissatisfaction with ALIS led the Pentagon to start developing an option for organic (DoD) management of the F-35 supply chain. That would have far-reaching implications. The effort is ongoing, but suffers from a lack of data from Lockheed Martin, according to the GAO. “There is a tension between two distinct sustainment concepts,” the GAO noted. The Pentagon has already intervened to modify the system by which F-35 parts are transported globally, assigning responsibility to the Defense Logistics Agency and the U.S. Transportation Command.

Version 3 of ALIS is now being delivered. “It has reduced false alarms by up to 70 percent,” said VADM Matt Winter, the head of the F-35 JPO recently. “There are still some usability challenges, but it’s a magnitude better than previous ALIS releases,” he added. The senior RAF officer told AIN that he had “no reservations about ALIS.”  

To address gaps in the ALIS capability, the U.S. Air Force (USAF) stepped in and produced two applications. “They help the maintainers do things they were doing outside of ALIS anyway,” a senior Air Force civilian said. “They were using Excel spreadsheets and hand-written notes and then having to re-enter those things…they were pain points,” he added. Future applications will work directly with ALIS, he promised.

Supply Chain Issues

The GAO report said that there were supply chain issues with spare parts as well as the “incompatibility” of some parts and software with more recent versions of the aircraft. There was a repair backlog of about 4,300 parts. “Overseas customers have experienced long wait times for parts needed to repair aircraft,” the GAO added. It is taking much longer than anticipated to establish the global depots where parts are repaired. There is a significant shortage of spares; not enough have been purchased.

The Pentagon does not have its own database of F-35 parts and doesn’t even know what they cost and where they are located, the GAO noted. That’s because although all F-35 parts are theoretically owned by the U.S. government, they are managed by Lockheed Martin through ALIS, in a global pool with other F-35 customer nations. It was not clear what parts and supply responsibilities lay with Lockheed Martin, versus the services, the GAO claimed.

Given all that it is fortunate that, according to Lockheed Martin, more than 90 percent of all parts are exceeding design reliability requirements and more than 70 percent have not yet experienced their first failure. Lockheed Martin also said that low-observable maintenance is better than expected.

The head of the F-35 program at Lockheed Martin claimed recently that the company “was taking aggressive actions to enhance F-35 readiness and reduce sustainment costs.” The was just a few days before the GAO report stated bluntly that “the current projected costs of F-35 sustainment are not affordable for the services.”

In theory, the existence of ALIS should enable Lockheed Martin to more easily develop Performance Based Logistics (PBL) offers. It has signed PBL contracts with key F-35 suppliers BAE Systems, Northrop Grumman, and Collins Elbit Vision Systems, and “Master Repair Agreements” with 12 more suppliers, including Honeywell, GE, and Eaton. But it has not yet made any PBL commitments to the Pentagon or the F-35 partner and customer nations. The DoD wants to conclude multiple-year, fixed-price PBL contracts, once it has sufficient experience and understanding of sustainment issues. That could be some way off, according to the GAO.

As noted earlier, ALIS is more than a maintenance system. It also aims to manage pilot training. But using it has been “a waste of time,” according to Col. Paul Moga, commander of the F-35 training wing at Eglin AFB. Three months ago, he told Defense News that many workarounds were needed to the Training Management System (TMS). “We’re not going to start using TMS again until it works,” he declared.

One of the training issues has been the failure to keep the operational flight programs (OFPs) in the simulators current with the ones in the aircraft. Since air forces are planning a 50-50 split for F-35 pilots between simulator time and actually flying the jet, this is an important failure. 

Then there are the Mission Data Files. These are vital, a threat library covering enemy force elements such as radars, missiles, and tanks that helps the F-35’s much-advertised advanced sensor recognition and data fusion capability. The files are generated by a laboratory in the U.S., which is taking unacceptably long times to update them. The Pentagon has hired a California company, C3, to apply machine learning and artificial intelligence to the task. C3 is also working on a top-level supplement to ALIS.

When panels are removed from an F-35, they must be carefully handled and treated so that they retain their stealth properties.
When panels are removed from an F-35, they must be carefully handled and treated so that they retain their stealth properties. (Photo: Chris Pocock)

So what does this all mean for availability? Senior USAF officials told the U.S. Congress last month that the Mission Capable rate for the latest Block 3F versions operating at the 388th Fighter Wing, Hill AFB, was 64.5 percent last month. Their goal is to achieve 80 percent by September, in common with other U.S. fighters. But the GAO report in April said the overall rate was only 52 percent, mostly due to that parts supply problem, which has led to cannibalization. And these numbers refer only to the performance of one mission. Full Mission Capability rates from May to November last year were only 34 percent for the F-35A and 16 percent for the F-35B.

The UK Royal Air Force has been “a world leader in taking cost out of combat aircraft support,” Sir Stephen Hillier, chief of the air staff, told AIN earlier this year. The RAF calculates that operations and support accounts for about two-thirds of the through-life cost of a combat jet. But Hillier was noncommittal when AIN asked whether the RAF would achieve an availability contract for the F-35, similar to that now in force with BAE Systems for the Eurofighter Typhoon. The other senior RAF officer told AIN that he doubted whether a similar contract would ever be signed for the F-35. But in any case, he added, such contracts have their drawbacks, “for instance if you ‘surge’ operations beyond the number of hours foreseen in the contract.”

All told, this looks to be an unsatisfactory situation. But remember that not only is this the world’s largest-ever combat aircraft program, it is also the most scrutinized. It is impossible to properly make an overall comparison of the F-35’s R&M and support performance with that of other modern fighters. On the few metrics where comparison is possible, it seems that the F-35 is doing okay.