WASHINGTON — The F-35 joint program office and a top government watchdog are butting heads about a key question for the joint strike fighter: whether or not the fifth-generation plane can fly if disconnected from a key logistics system.

At the center of the debate is the Autonomics Logistics and Information System (ALIS), an internal diagnostic system that tracks the health of each part of each plane worldwide. ALIS is no stranger to controversy, with top program officials identifying it as the last hurdle to declaring the US Air Force jets operational on time this year.

Now a new report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) identifies a new ALIS-related concern — that if a single ALIS server were to go down, whether from loss of electricity or sabotage, it could cripple the entire F-35 fleet.

"Users are concerned that ALIS' current design results in all F-35 data produced across the fleet to be routed up to the Central Point of Entry and then to the Autonomic Logistics Operating Unit, with no backup system or redundancy," according to the April GAO report. "If either of these fail, it could take the entire F-35 fleet offline."

But JPO chief Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan disagrees, telling reporters last week after testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee there is "absolutely" no truth to the claim that a failure to connect to ALIS could ground the fleet.

The differing views of the program office and the GAO over ALIS reflect the ongoing challenges of the F-35 program, and the fleet's logistics system in particular. ALIS is by far the most integrated and complex fleet management system in the US military today, but advances in technology often give rise to new challenges — and without a clear precedent from previous systems, both sides have legitimate arguments to fall back on.

ALIS, often called the backbone of the F-35 fleet, is an information technology hub that is used to plan missions, track aircraft status, order spare parts, and manage sustainment of the plane. By contrast, legacy aircraft use several standalone systems to perform these daily functions. ALIS is the first system of its kind to manage daily squadron operations, track sustainment trends and protect sovereign information — all in one hub, according to Dave Scott, vice president of training and logistics solution business development for Lockheed Martin Mission Systems and Training.

All ALIS servers connect through encrypted land or satellite military networks, rather than the "internet" we usually think of, Scott noted.

There is only one global ALIS server, called the Autonomic Logistics Operating Unit (ALOU), where spare parts are ordered and reliability trends are analyzed, Scott said. Each partner nation has its own server, called the Central Point of Entry (CPE), which stores sovereign data and transmits that information to the ALOU, Scott explained.

Individual squadrons operate locally with a server called the Standard Operating Unit (SOU), which communicates with that nation's CPE. Squadrons can operate independently and store data for about 30 days without connecting to the partner nation's CPE, Scott said. Then, when a connection is re-established, the SOU uploads the stored data to the CPE.

Differing Opinions

The fact that the F-35 enterprise has so few servers, and just one main hub for the entire globe, is at the core of concerns ALIS could easily be taken down.

The GAO report warned that ALIS has no backup system to ensure operations if any of the servers — the ALOU, a nation's CPE or a squadron's SOU — were to fail. Specifically, squadron leaders at two sites visited by the GAO expressed concern that a loss of electricity, particularly during deployments to remote locations, "could adversely affect fleet operations."

The program office, for its part, says it is working to build in more redundancy to the ALIS infrastructure. Program officials are also working to procure two additional ALOUs for backup, and possibly relocating the US CPE to another F-35 site, according to the GAO report.

But in the near-term, the Pentagon feels it can manage even if ALIS were to go down. In fact, the overall F-35 fleet should be able to operate without connection for up to 30 days with maintainers tracking the work off-line, the Pentagon told GAO.

Losing connectivity to ALIS would be a pain, but hardly fatal, the JPO contends. If jets are unable to use ALIS — a ground-based system that provides sustainment and support, but not combat capabilities for the jet — the F-35 is still a usable plane. In fact, the worst case scenario would be that operators would have to track maintenance and manage daily squadron operations manually, just as older jets do.

The best description of the problem came from Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, chief of Air Force Materiel Command, who compared ALIS to a laptop computer.

"You can turn on your laptop, you can use it, you can turn it off and never be on the internet," Pawlikowski said April 28 during a Defense Writers Group event. "But eventually there is stuff you want to send out by email, eventually there are things you may want to put on your Google drive."

Yes, the F-35 can take off and land without connecting to ALIS; yes, operators can make repairs without the logistics system, Pawlikowski said. But at some point users need to feed that information up to the central ALIS hub, she stressed.

"I don't need ALIS to put fuel in the plane and fly it, [I can] take a part and replace it if I have the spares there," Pawlikowski said. "But somewhere along the line I've got to tell ALIS that I did it so that the supply chain will now know that that part has got to be replaced."

For his part, Bogdan believes there were "no surprises" in the GAO report.

"All of the issues mentioned are well known to the JPO, the U.S. Services, International Partners and our Industry team," Bogdan said in a written response to the GAO report April 14. "Overall, the F-35 program is executing well across the entire spectrum of acquisition, to include development and design, flight test, production, fielding and base stand-up, training, sustainment of fielded aircraft, and building a global sustainment enterprise."

Marine ALIS Users Satisfied

As debate rages in Washington over ALIS' viability, the operators who use the system on a regular basis say they are satisfied 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.

The Marine Corps declared IOC with its F-35Bs last summer, and conducted its first-ever expeditionary test in December. Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 deployed eight jets to Twentynine Palms, California, for Exercise Steel Knight, where they practiced short takeoffs and vertical landings. The Marines are preparing to deploy to Iwakuni, Japan, next year.

"I am more than satisfied with it and seeing it grow and seeing it change," a Marine said. "There's not as much troubleshooting anymore so maintenance times are definitely up."

Overall, maintenance on the F-35 is "10 times easier" than on a Navy F-18, said one maintainer. Despite initial challenges, another Marine stressed that the system is constantly improving.

"Compared to how it was originally, it's night and day," said the Marine 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."

Aaron Mehta in Washington contributed reporting. 

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