WASHINGTON — Setting the weekly flying and maintenance schedule for an F-35 squadron is a weeklong process. It takes hours for multiple people to download data from the jets and comb through it, paste information into different spreadsheets, and continuously update each system.

With a new app called Kronos, on track to be delivered in early March, the U.S. Air Force is hoping it can trim the amount of time for that process to 15 minutes.

Kronos was developed by the Air Force’s Kessel Run software development team as part of a new effort called Mad Hatter, which was established late last year to solve pilot and maintainer gripes with the F-35 fighter jet.

If all goes well, it could lead to a much bigger overhaul of the F-35’s troubled logistics backbone, known as the Autonomic Logistics Information System, or ALIS, said Will Roper, the Air Force’s top acquisition official.

“There are many things about ALIS that are very frustrating and time consuming,” Roper told Defense News on Feb. 12 in an exclusive interview. “The goal [of Mad Hatter] is not simply to fix ALIS within the constraints that define it. It is to make the operator — the maintainer — more efficient, to make their user experience more pleasant.”

To build Kronos, the Air Force is relying on a team of developers from Kessel Run; Lockheed Martin, which manufactures the F-35 and ALIS; and Pivotal Software, Inc., which has created software and data analytics applications for the Air Force over the past several years.

Those coders are also working with a specialized group of maintainers from Nellis Air Force Base — called the Blended Operational Lightning Technician team or BOLT — who have helped shape the product, will test it and then return feedback to the Mad Hatter team once the first iteration of Kronos has been delivered, Roper said.

The acronym for the Autonomic Logistics Information System is pronounced
The acronym for the Autonomic Logistics Information System is pronounced "Alice," and a Mad Hatter initiative is set to fix the system. (John Tenniel via Getty Images)

“You can imagine: What do the users want? They want Wi-Fi on the flight line. We believe we can do that securely. They want to have a touch screen where they have one database that can touch ALIS and all the other tools, that translates automatically. These are not Herculean tasks,” he said.

“This is today’s technology, so the fact that we will think of this as innovation in the Air Force when it’s technology we all enjoy when we go home means we need to reboot ourselves. We need to expect this for the maintainers,” he added.

Mad Hatter is still in its earliest stages, but it has already attracted the attention of top Air Force officials, including Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, who name-dropped the effort during an October congressional hearing. “The Defense Department and the Air Force is terrible at buying software,” she acknowledged, but added that Kessel Run was changing that paradigm.

“There is a logistics system that supports the F-35 called ALIS. It cannot scale. It has got huge problems. It drives the maintainers nuts. And so we put together a team of Lockheed Martin, Air Force programmers and maintainers on the flight line,” she said. “They named themselves. The new program is called Mad Hatter, rather than ALIS. It is always the young techies that come up with something.”

Two other applications will follow closely on the heels of Kronos. Titan will help expeditors determine fleet status, assigning tasks between maintenance teams as the workflow changes. Meanwhile, Athena is built for squadron leadership and will help section chiefs ensure maintainers are trained and performing work to build competency.

“We’ll start with the BOLT [aircraft maintenance group] at Nellis — they’re going to be acting as a guinea pig or a petri dish for this code,” Roper said.

“If it works well, then there’s an option for the Air Force and the Navy to move that beyond Nellis and to deploy elsewhere,” he said. “There’s nothing about this tool that is peculiar to F-35s, so we’re thinking beyond just F-35s. Maybe F-22s can be run this way. Maybe even fourth-gen systems.”

And once Mad Hatter has a chance to prove itself with its initial apps, it may move onto a more substantial task: creating an experimental, cloud-based version of ALIS, and then helping build future software drops.

The team has begun the process of re-hosting the latest iteration of ALIS, version 3.0.1.2, on Pivotal’s cloud foundry, Roper said.

“That allows you to start breaking the code up into modules and triaging parts of the code that we think can be used as they are, or parts of the code that can be used with modification, or parts of the code that we need to change to make compatible with cloud,” he said. “It also allows us to use cloud development tools, which is a big deal.”

The bigger picture

ALIS’ problems are legion and legendary in the defense acquisition community. New software builds take more than a year to formulate and are often late. Data gaps have caused canceled missions. In a report released in January, the Pentagon’s director of test and evaluation blasted the lack of progress in fixing the logistics system’s longtime technical issues — some of which have been on the books since 2012.

“Users must employ numerous workarounds due to data and functionality deficiencies. Most capabilities function as intended only with a high level of manual effort by ALIS administrators and maintenance personnel,” the report stated.

So how did a system designed to streamline maintenance processes become such a burden?

ALIS is a proprietary system built to Defense Department standards that existed before the existence of concepts like cloud computing and DevOpps software. In order for the ALIS infrastructure to improve, it may need to move to modern, cloud-based tools, Roper said.

“There is good code there, but it’s good code in a fairly bad user interface and a bad architecture — bad in the sense that it’s 1990s technology and we’re in 2019,” he said.

“As they go through the code, think of it as apps in a smartphone, knowing that it’s an old phone that needs to improve. So we’re eventually going to ditch the ’90s flip phone, re-host on a modern smartphone, and we want to know what apps are pretty good to use, what apps can be used in part with reuse, and what things we need to recode,” he said. “It’s early, but so far a lot of the code appears reusable down at the app level.”

Fixing ALIS and moving the F-35 to a more agile software development approach is a stated goal for both Lockheed and the F-35 Joint Program Office. How exactly that happens is not set in stone.

While the Mad Hatter effort kicked off in October, teams have only been coding since January. Before that, Lockheed and the Air Force sat at the negotiating table, solidifying how much reach the government would have into ALIS and what data it would own.

Roper views Mad Hatter as a pathfinder for the program office’s own agile software development effort for F-35 Block 4 upgrades, which it calls Continuous Capability Development and Delivery.

In January, Naval Air Systems Command, which manages F-35 contracts, posted a notice stating its intent to sole-source a contract to Lockheed for “ALIS Next.” That effort “will re-design ALIS in accordance with current information technology and software development best practices,” the solicitation said.

“We’re partnering with Kessel Run on prototyping ALIS improvements for the warfighter and working closely with the JPO on a strategy for the rapid development and delivery of ALIS software driving long-term sustainability of the program,” said Reeves Valentine, Lockheed’s vice president of F-35 logistics. “Lockheed Martin is investing in ALIS to improve data integrity, reduce hardware infrastructure and labor costs, ultimately improving aircraft availability through ALIS.”