While much has been said about the steel and advanced electronics behind the F-35, it is the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS) that gives this aircraft its capability edge. But is ALIS a bigger risk than first thought?
Lockheed Martin, developer of ALIS, says it “integrates a broad range of capabilities including operations, maintenance, prognostics, supply chain, customer support services, training and technical data".
"A single, secure information environment provides users with up-to-date information on any of these areas using web-enabled applications on a distributed network. ALIS serves as the information infrastructure for the F-35, transmitting aircraft health and maintenance action information to the appropriate users on a globally-distributed network to technicians worldwide," the company said.
"Compared to previous aircraft, a higher fidelity of information about the F-35 fleet is tracked within ALIS to reduce operations and maintenance costs and increase aircraft availability. ALIS turns data from many sources into actionable information, enabling pilots, maintainers and military leaders to make proactive decisions to keep jets flying."
In April 2016, the US Government Accountability Office released a report that said a failure "could take the entire fleet offline" because there is no backup system. The report also said a lack of testing done of the software will mean it's not ready for its deployment by the Air Force in August and the Navy in 2018. The report also said program officials said that if ALIS is not fully functional, the F-35 could not be operated as frequently as intended.
Head of the F-35 Joint Program Office Lieutenant General Christopher Bogdan weighed in on the Joint Strike Fighter’s software at a conference in Australia.
The risks of cyber security were not lost on the General, with Lt Gen Bogdan stressing that one of the most vital components of his job and the JSF program is to ensure all partners have exactly what they need for ALIS to be safe and operational.
"From my perspective, the most important thing that I can do to make sure Australia and our other partners have the full complement of what they need for ALIS, is to make sure from a cyber security perspective, that it's safe. Because they won't turn it on and connect it to their systems unless we can deliver them a system that they know is safe, from a cyber security perspective. That threat is continually moving and continually evolving," Lt Gen Bogdan said.
"The way we built ALIS a number of years ago was good then, now we've just got to continue to make sure that we keep the ALIS system, from a cyber security perspective, safe. I think that all of our partners, including Australia, would tell you, ‘We like the capability, we enjoy what it brings us, it's good to have a full capability, but General Bogdan we're going to connect it to our other networks and we're going to connect it back to your networks, and if you can't assure us that there is not going to be any leakage there, then we're in trouble.'"
Lt Gen Bogdan also emphasised the ever-evolving speed of software development is nothing new to him and the JSF program.
"Software will always be a risk on this program. Now, 10 years from now, 15 years from now," he said.
"It’s just complicated. Lots of software, and the capabilities embedded in that software are just very complicated."
Some of these complications are the stability issues of the software.
"You heard about stability issues on our software six months ago to a year ago, I'm not going to stand here and tell you that's totally fixed and that's never a problem we're going to have to worry about, but what I will tell you is we have a very good understanding of where those problems are, and how to route those problems out, and we're seeing that today in the aeroplanes that we're producing," Lt Gen Bogdan said.
"Our maintenance system ALIS, extremely complicated as we talked about, but I will tell you today, in the field it is doing a very good job.
"Our maintainers, if you talk to them, would say 'We never want to go back to any other system for maintaining aeroplanes.' That's a good thing."
Lt Gen Bogdan did not shy away from the fact that there is much to be done on ALIS and that the program itself has not run on time.
"We have a lot of work to do on ALIS still, it is not nearly as good as it can be, and quite frankly, it's late. Getting the new capabilities out in the field today are months behind schedule from where we want to be. That hurts the war fighter the most, because we can't give them the capability they need to launch recovery jets as quickly as they can," he said.
"ALIS is a risk on our program that we continue to monitor, we continue to try and improve."
In some good news for the Australian JSF program, Lt Gen Bogdan confirmed that the full capability of ALIS will be delivered to Australia.
"There is no intention of not delivering the full capability of ALIS, so that Australia can do the full spectrum of maintenance on its aeroplanes," he said.
"Some of the issues that we have with ALIS right now are, we are attempting to integrate the engine information on the aeroplane into the ALIS system. Prior to this year, all the data about the engine information came off a separate computer from Pratt and Whitney and then we had to take that data and hand enter it into ALIS. Now we're trying to integrate that. That gets a little tricky, because the engine data and the airframe data are a little bit different."
Australia will have a total of 72 F-35A aircraft all with the ALIS capability, with the full fleet in service by the end of 2023. Two, AU-001 and AU-002, have been delivered and each cost more than US$120 million.