WASHINGTON – Ahead of a fast-approaching deadline for the US Air Force to declare its variant of the F-35 joint strike fighter operational this summer, the general in charge of the program laid out the biggest risks ahead in development of the fifth-generation fighter jet.
During a roundtable with reporters Wednesday, Feb. 10, Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan, head of the F-35 joint program office (JPO), stressed that the Pentagon and industry team are is making great strides. The team has completed 80 percent of the plane’s system development and demonstration (SDD) program, he said.
Meanwhile, the JPO is in final negotiations with contractor Lockheed Martin on the ninth and tenth batches of the jet, and expects to get the unit cost down to the target of $80 to $85 million by 2019.
Beyond 2019, Bogdan expects the price-per-jet to come down even more as the program adds international customers and generates additional savings with an expected bulk purchase starting in FY19 through FY21. This so-called "block buy" could yield well over $2 billion in savings over three years for the 14 international partners, Bogdan said.
But despite progress in maturing the program and bringing down the cost, Bogdan still sees several areas of risk before the Air Force is set to declares initial operational capability with its F-35A models on Aug. 1. Overall, there are 419 deficiencies in the SDD program the JPO must mitigate, he said.
Autonomic Logistics Information System
For the F-35 program, the number one area of risk right now is the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS), Bogdan said. ALIS is the backbone to the F-35 fleet, designed as a kind of internal diagnostic system that tracks keeps track of the health of each part of each plane worldwide.
As the JPO updates ALIS by way of new increments, the team is still trying to fix many of the original problems, Bogdan said.
"We're adding significant capability to ALIS at the same time trying to fix many of the things that we didn't get fixed when we first deployed it," Bogdan said. "It is a software-intensive system that connects to almost every piece of the F-35 program."
The Pentagon's director of operational test and evaluation also raised concern about ALIS in his annual report, particularly regarding cyber deficiencies.
"[ALIS] continues to struggle in development with deferred requirements, late and incomplete deliveries, high manpower requirements, multiple deficiencies requiring work-arounds, and a complex architecture with likely [but largely untested] cyber deficiencies," Michael Gilmore wrote in his annual report.
The JPO aims to field the next increment, ALIS 2.02, on time, followed by ALIS 3.0 18 months to two years later, Bogdan said.
Behind ALIS, the biggest risk to the F-35 program is software development, Bogdan said. The JPO is currently working to finish the next increment of software, Block 3i, as well as the final software block required for full war-fighting capability, Block 3F. The Marine Corps declared its F-35B models operational with Block 2B software last summer; the Air Force needs Block 3i to do the same this summer.
The JPO is still seeing some problems with software "stability" — a measure of how well the sensors work — and is behind in getting mature versions to flight test, Bogdan said. As the team adds capability to Block 3i and Block 3F, the stability of the system is not improving, he explained. The root cause is a timing misalignment of the software of the plane's sensors and the software of its main computers, he said.
"If you don't get that right, the system just clogs," Bogdan said. "We're seeing as we add different radar modes and as we add different capabilities to the [distributed aperture system] and the [electro-optical targeting system] that the timing of the software of the sensors to the timing of the software of the main computers is misaligned, and when it gets misaligned the system kind of chokes."
The JPO is seeing this choking effect, where the plane's systems shut down and need to be rebooted, about once every four flight hours with both 3i and 3F software, Bogdan said. The goal is to get to one event every eight or nine flight hours, which is in line with legacy airplanes, he said.
The JPO has until May to fix or at least mitigate the stability problems on Block 3i before the Air Force's Aug. 1 IOC date could be impacted, Bogdan said.
"There are 14 different elements we are looking at for Air Force IOC," Bogdan stressed. "The two that are red right now are software and ALIS."
Another area of risk for the program is delays at the so-called "reprogramming" laboratories that will build mission data files (MDFs), a vast databank of information needed for combat that can be loaded into the plane. Just one reprogramming lab is currently up and operating, and it is overloaded with orders from international partners as well as the US services, Bogdan said.
"We have so many customers in the next three years that require mission data files, partners as well as the services as well as different [areas of operations] that the one lab we do have up and operating right now, the US reprogramming lab, is just bearing down and working as hard as they can," Bogdan said. "It's just a throughput issue."
The MDF is a critical capability that enables the F-35 to be a "smart" plane, Bogdan explained. The MDF compiles all the information about different assets in an area – from the friendly jets to the threats – in a "brick" that operators can load into the airplane as a kind of reference volume.
"When the radar is working and it sees a particular radar signature, it can go to the lookup tables in the MDF and say, 'aha, that's a Mig31,'" Bogdan said, emphasizing that the MDF will lend the F-35 the ability to provide the pilot with the clearest battlefield picture of any modern platform.