WASHINGTON — Issues with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter’s inventory management system has led to unexpected groundings of the fifth-generation jet, and a fix doesn’t appear to be on the horizon.
Keeping track of inventory is certainly not an exclusive issue to the F-35. The first-ever audit of the U.S. Defense Department, completed in late 2018, found a running series of inventory issues, with databases featuring incorrect information that led to the department losing everything from weapon motors to whole buildings.
But the F-35 is different because it comes with a software system called ALIS — or the Autonomic Logistics Information System — which was designed in part to address specific inventory-tracking challenges identified by the F-35 Joint Program Office in a series of “for official use only” documents exclusively obtained by Defense News.
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ALIS is a data system for documenting maintenance, technical manuals and ordering parts, something Rebecca Grant of IRIS Independent Research says lets the F-35 “report its maintenance status like R2-D2 talking to the Millennium Falcon.”
“But, it’s a big piece of software and the Air Force is trying to update it and shift part of ALIS to new apps,” she said.
The logistics issue, which has continued to occur in ALIS version 3.0.1, involves supplies or components that, upon installation, are not actually listed and tracked in ALIS as designed. Those require specific requests to software engineers to have data corrected in the system. While those requests can catch some problems, the issue is not always detected by the user. These requests appear to be coming in on a daily basis, a sign of how widespread the issue is.
That issue leads to a second impact: These “holes,” as the F-35 Joint Program Office calls them, do not collect data on how parts are used after installation, which means a part might be breaking down from heavy use, yet that part won’t be flagged by ALIS as an at-risk piece.
As a result, it’s less likely that issues developing from wear and tear or that there’s a lack of replacement parts will be discovered until such an issue has become an acute problem, possibly leading to a grounding of the aircraft.
The JPO document hints that part of the issue stems from the fact that F-35 and ALIS manufacturer Lockheed Martin was not using the system at its Fort Worth, Texas, facility, where it would’ve identified information gaps early on.
The company this year rectified that issue, but has yet to implement a process to check whether a supply is entering the ALIS system at its first point of potential failure: a Lockheed-operated location.
Notably, the document also points the finger at Lockheed for not establishing “a single point integrator to manage” these issues, “which is a roadblock to better software and data integration.”
On that front, the company is working on an automated procedure that should smooth things over, according to a source familiar with the program, who said Lockheed was “letting things go out to the field that was hurting” the operational pace, but that the company is “putting automation in place to prevent that” in the future.
“Part of the corrective action here is that automation within our computer systems, our software, that says to not send the part out to the fleet if it doesn’t have electronic equipment logs,” the source said. "And then it triggers a flag for us to go figure out why the supplier didn’t send that to us, so we can put it in the ALIS system so when we send the part, they’ve got the part, they’ve got the log, everything works the way it’s supposed to.”
Greg Ulmer, Lockheed’s vice president and general manager of the company’s F-35 program, told Defense News that the issue is a “major focus” for the firm, adding that the use of automation has resulted in better data vetting that has reduced these issues by 50 percent since 2017.
ALIS has been a challenge for the F-35 program from its earliest days, and there are no signs of it being fixed in the near term. The most recent report from the Pentagon’s test and evaluation office notes that users “must employ numerous workarounds due to data and functionality deficiencies”; that “most capabilities function as intended only with a high level of manual effort by ALIS administrators and maintenance personnel”; and that manual workarounds that are “complex and time-consuming” are needed to finish tasks designed for automation.
That same report noted that ALIS issues routinely cause IT challenges when the F-35 arrives at a new operating location, and that those challenges “delay the unit’s ability to start generating sorties. Often, the timeframe to start flight operation is longer than that with legacy aircraft.”
Meanwhile, a U.S. Government Accountability Office report from April says the “F-35 supply chain does not have enough spare parts available to keep aircraft flying enough of the time necessary to meet warfighter requirements.” From May through November 2018, F-35 aircraft across the fleet were “unable to fly 29.7 percent of the time due to spare parts shortages,” the GAO found.
Grant believes the ALIS issues should start to be addressed more quickly now that it resides under Lockheed Martin Aeronautics leadership, as opposed to being split across a number of different units at the company. And, she noted, there is another issue for ALIS that the system can’t take credit for: making sure there are enough pieces available for it to track.
“ALIS can’t track spare parts if the JPO didn’t fund them in the first place. No doubt ALIS needs improvements, but this is also a small-fleet management issue and yet another example of why the Air Force and Navy should take F-35 logistics management back in house,” Grant said.
“This won’t be the last time F-35 users want to update and improve that system. But remember, the F-35 is still a long way from system maturity, and the spare parts ordering problem should look much improved when 1,000 jets are in the field.”
Valerie Insinna in Washington contributed to this report.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.