MARINE CORPS AIR STATION BEAUFORT, S.C. — Almost a year after it was declared operational by the US Marine Corps, the F-35 joint strike fighter remains a polarizing program. Years of cost overruns continue to linger over the perception of the fifth-generation fighter, but more concerning are reports from groups like the Government Accountability Office or DoD Inspector General that raise concerns about the technical capabilities of the plane.
And nothing raises quite as many concerns as the Autonomics Logistics and Information System (ALIS) program. An internal diagnostic system that tracks the health of each part of each plane worldwide, ALIS has been a frequent target for critics of the F-35 program — not without reason, as the system struggled to get off the ground in the early days of the jet, and the system has been the focus of recent delays.
Bu as the debate about ALIS' viability continues in Washington, those who use ALIS on a regular basis say they are satisfied with how the system has been operating so far.
A group of four Marine maintainers from Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort in South Carolina, the training hub for the F-35B for both the Corps and the United Kingdom, told reporters during an April 14 visit that ALIS has made their life easier.
Asked what the biggest benefit of ALIS is, one Marine cited the direction it gives a team of maintainers."Walking you step through step. There's literally a signoff for every task you do, every action you do," he said.
"Compared to how it was originally, it's night and day," said another when asked about updates to the system. "The transition has been good. Every upgrade they do is easy to get ahold of, get your head around. It's been pretty consistent as far as maintainability."
All four men also agreed that they would recommend ALIS, or some equivalent system, for future aircraft, although they noted that logistically it would be almost impossible to retrofit such a system to existing aircraft like the F-18.
Part of the benefit of the system, the maintainers said, was the support Lockheed provides. Because ALIS is tied into Lockheed's system, and because Lockheed contractors are integrated into the maintenance teams at Beaufort, needed parts can come quickly.
"There is a benefit to F-35 when you have a parts availability issue we can talk directly to Lockheed Martin and tell them this jet is non mission capable because of this part and they're going to work as hard as they can to get us that part as quickly as possible," the first maintainer said. "We can get that part in a matter of days as opposed to months."
Another Marine compared that to the F-18, where sometimes one jet need to be "cannibalized" in order to come up with a needed part for another.
Overall, maintenance on the F-35 is "ten times easier" than on an F-18, said the first maintainer. He acknowledged that the low-observable capabilities "can slow you down at times, but it's obviously a needed weapon system so worth the pace we have to stall on."
Concluded a third Marine, "I am more than satisfied with it and seeing it grow and seeing it change. There's not as much troubleshooting anymore so maintenance times are definitely up."
The Marines also noted how the UK maintainers working at Beaufort have integrated smoothly with their US counterparts, noting they all work interchangeably on American or UK jets.