September 16, 2013
Credit: Andy Wolfe/Lockheed Martin
After years of technical problems, overruns and delays, Pentagon officials are saying the F-35 aircraft is largely a known quantity. They are now focused on delivering on promises and helping the U.S. Marine Corps to declare initial operational capability in 2015 with the U.S. Air Force only a year behind.
But a lesser known factor in the success or failure of fielding these first squadrons is implementation of a new fleet-wide information support system. Just as the F-35 program broke ground to standardize an aircraft design for three U.S. services and eight international partners, the Autonomic Information Logistics System (ALIS) also reflects a new way of managing a fleet. And, in the case of the F-35, it is a multinational fleet that will share global resources.
The $448 million cost of developing ALIS is dwarfed by the price to procure it for the more than 3,000 F-35s in the plan: about $1 billion. If the aircraft were akin to smartphones, the ALIS system would be the operating system and applications needed by users. The two are enmeshed and both are required for fielding.
There is potentially big money in ALIS. F-35 Program Executive Officer USAF Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan says he will look at competing unit-level ALIS operations as he considers how to reduce F-35 sustainment cost. So it is not a given for prime contractor Lockheed Martin. Once fielded, this could be worth billions of dollars as each squadron operating ALIS requires at least seven people for system administration and maintenance, says Todd Mellon, director of industrial and logistics maintenance planning and sustainment at the government program office.
With ALIS, Lockheed has developed a single system to handle the tasks now done by a host of programs for legacy fleets. With the F-16, there are distinct information systems for repair, supply, maintenance personnel and skills, mission planning and post-mission debriefings. They are standard for the Air Force and used by other fleets.
With a new system comes growing pains. The Air Force is frustrated because a single fleet-management system cannot conduct apples-to-apples comparisons of the F-16 and F-35, for example. However, Mellon says ALIS regularly delivers to the services a data package to allow for comparative analysis. “The only other solution would be for everyone to be on ALIS, and not everybody needs an ALIS solution,” he says.
ALIS, a Windows-based system, merges these functions into a single system with standard user equipment. The idea behind ALIS is a single, central fleet-management tool that will allow for truly predictive maintenance. Health data for the worldwide fleet will be collated at a hub in Fort Worth and provide analysts with insight of parts longevity or timing for inspections, for example.