WASHINGTON — Let’s look backward, shall we, to October 2001. That’s when Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co. in Fort Worth, Texas, received an $18.98 billion cost-plus-award-fee contract for the Joint Strike Fighter Air System Engineering and Manufacturing Development Program. According to award details, the objectives were to “develop an affordable family of strike aircraft and an autonomic logistics support and training system.”
So, a little more than 17 years ago.
Nothing about the timeline is terribly unusual for development of a military platform. The F-35 program faced more than its fair share of problems and criticisms tied to delays, cost overruns and manufacturing problems that needed to be addressed. But as far as time to full-rate production, complex systems take a long time.
Theoretically, though, it would seem ludicrous to allocate nearly two decades to develop a tech system, considering how rapidly technology evolves. And that brings us to ALIS.
Again, the F-35 has wrestled with a lot of challenges over the years. But what currently receives the most attention — criticism actually — is ALIS. It’s not working. And it’s frustrating maintainers to no end. Our air warfare reporter, Valerie Insinna, has extensively reported on the problems, but here it is in a nutshell: After years of updates and improvements, the F-35’s system, designed to bring efficiency to maintenance and flight operations, continues to be beset by data gaps and bugs that actually make it harder, not easier, to keep the F-35 mission-ready. Maintainers are figuring out ways to work around ALIS and its failures to get the job done. That’s a problem.
There’s a saying in the tech community: "Fail fast, fail often.” It would appear ALIS is nailing the latter, but taking far too long to do it.
And there’s a reason for that. Nothing about ALIS development mirrored the best practices of the tech community, and the result was “good code in a fairly bad user interface and a bad architecture,” as noted by the Air Force’s top acquisition official, Will Roper, in a recent interview with Defense News. Why is that? ALIS is a proprietary system built to Defense Department standards. Let’s break that down a bit. Proprietary means little to no leveraging of commercial technology or open standards. It means a single point of failure. And with standards predetermined by the Department of Defense, the ability to take an agile and therefore adaptable approach to development was all but squashed.
This issue is top of mind for me, as we’ve been reporting a lot recently about the cultural disconnect between the Pentagon and the tech community — “Silicon Valley,” some might say, though not really bound anymore by that specific geography. And, truly, you might say ALIS is the poster child for the failures within the traditional defense community to understand how best to develop technology. To resurface a tongue-in-cheek comment from Josh Marcuse, director of the Defense Innovation Board, about the Pentagon’s approach to innovation: “It’s OK to fail, you just have to fail very slowly, you have to fail very expensively and you have to fail with a high degree of documentation.” It would appear ALIS met that standard beautifully.
The Air Force is moving forward on a way to to fix things — a promising and actually innovative approach called Mad Hatter (clever, right?) that one can only hope will also offer up some better practices for future development.
The F-35 is not your typical tech development program. I get that. One might argue that the sensitivity of the data managed by the logistics systems, combined with the complexity of requirements, prevent commercial practices or open standards from being used. But that argument doesn’t hold water. Smart tech development doesn’t happen in lieu of security.
Did the defense community understand that back in 2001? Maybe not. But let’s hope everyone knows it now.
Jill Aitoro is editor of Defense News. She is also executive editor of Sightline Media's Business-to-Government group, including Defense News, C4ISRNET, Federal Times and Fifth Domain. She brings over 15 years’ experience in editing and reporting on defense and federal programs, policy, procurement, and technology.