Sustainment issues plague F-35’s logistics IT backbone

Questions remain about the replacement for the F-35’s logistics infrastructure, Autonomic Logistics Information Systems, which has been riddled with errant alerts and corrupted data transfer.

F-35 (Scott Wolfe/Air Force)

The Air Force's embattled computer in the sky, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, is getting new IT logistics infrastructure to track faulty components, but questions remain about sustainment costs over the fighter's life cycle.

Members of the House Oversight and Reform Committee questioned officials from Lockheed and the Defense Department July 22 about ongoing problems with the F-35's Autonomic Logistics Information Systems (ALIS), which is responsible for tracking and transmitting data from the electronic equipment logs, or EEL files.

The DOD's Office of Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office have both looked into ALIS' problems with accurately tracking the F-35's components. The technical and graphical records in the logs can be corrupted as that are transferred from Lockheed Martin to the Air Force or entered incorrectly as a result of human error during data entry.

The GAO report, which was based on five site visits and published July 22, found that ALIS alerts were so unreliable that operators would fly the F-35 even when the ALIS system alert said not to.

"Every time a pilot gets in those planes and flies up into the sky they are risking their life," said committee chair Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.).

"Eighty-five% isn't good enough for the U.S. military. It has got to be 100%, and a contract is a contract... Our military managers don't want to be sending people up in the air when they don't have everything perfectly there that is in that contract," she said. "That is only fair."

To fix the problem with a new system, DOD must address existing issues, such as cloud use, software development models, incorporating existing software and system ownership roles between DOD and the prime contractor, the GAO report said.

The IG audit found "paid performance incentive fees on sustainment contracts based on inflated and unverified F-35 aircraft availability hours" and said DOD has paid for ready-for-issue parts to connect to the electronic equipment logs that ALIS tracks that didn't meet contract requirements – a problem that cost approximately $55 million a year to resolve. Between 2015 to 2018, DOD spent $303 million in labor to get the parts up to contract specifications.

DOD plans to sunset ALIS in the next two years and replace it with the Operational Data Integrated Network (ODIN), but now it needs to figure out what the system will do, how it will be done, who is doing the work and how to sustain it to avoid costly sustainment issues.

"To avoid similar disconnects in the future, it's important to clearly define and agree on what ODIN is meant to do -- informed by user needs," testified Diana Maurer, the GAO's director of defense capabilities and management.

Ellen Lord, the Pentagon's chief buyer, told the committee that ODIN would cost approximately $550 million over the next five years and that Lockheed Martin has begun initial coding for three ODIN applications.

Lt. Gen. Eric Fick, the program executive officer of the DOD F-35 Joint Program Office, said those funds would be redirected from "an ALIS re-architecture effort," but more resources will be needed eventually.

"We believe that we can fully instantiate ODIN over the course of the next five years within that budgetary cap, but we know that over the course of the 50 years remaining in the program that to remain viable we will need to continue to update the software as issues are found, as the program evolves and as maintenance practices change. So I do anticipate more funds will be required beyond the [future years defense programs]," Fick testified.

If DOD wants the new system to avoid ALIS' fate, it will have to answer several questions, including defining ODIN's purpose, how it will be designed and executed and what success looks like, Maurer said.

"Fixing ALIS by transitioning to ODIN will not be quick and it will not be easy," Maurer said. "However, this transition from ALIS to ODIN is only one item on a much longer list of F-35 sustainment challenges."

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