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.

In practice, it is intended to make fleet management easier from the unit to headquarters by allowing commanders a single system through which to view all aspects of the fleet. And Lockheed Martin's ALIS Program Director Mark Perreault says it is intended to make the maintainer's job easier. The F-35 is a data-intensive aircraft, and built into it are diagnostic tools that will alert ALIS based on pre-programmed parameters. This information exchange happens at the aircraft, when an ALIS portable maintenance aid (PMA) or portable classified aid (PCA)—ruggedized laptops used for aircraft management at the squadron level—is plugged into the jet for a download.

This use of digital tracking for fluids replaces use of gauges, says Sharon Parsley, a Lockheed Martin spokeswoman. The company boasts that flight-control-rigging maintenance now takes 5 min. for the F-35, compared to 8-14 hr. on legacy fighters, she adds. This is “something unique in fifth-generation systems,” says Tom Curry, Lockheed Martin's F-35 Director of ALIS, noting that its roots are on the F-22 program.

The use of ALIS also eliminates the need for paper manuals; all of the information is stored in the system and configuration updates are automatically provided.

ALIS is programmed to prioritize parts allocation based on principles agreed upon by all partners in the last Joint Executive Steering Board in March, Mellon explains. The agreement allows for squadrons in wartime operations to be prioritized no matter what nation owns them, he notes.

Each F-35 squadron will have a standard operating unit (SOU), a server on which the unit's data is housed. Each country will have a central point of entry (CPE), which holds all of the data from its fleets. Each country's CPE then transmits data to the single autonomic logistics operating unit (ALOU), which is housed at Lockheed Martin's Forth Worth facility and acts as a global fleet-management storage device. “It is the one place where you can integrate for each service and country information across the fleet,” Mellon says.

The Pentagon plans to field a second ALOU for redundancy, though funding and timing are not yet set, adds Mellon. Data are now backed up from the single ALOU on tapes, and reconstituting the system would be a timely venture, he says. Each aircraft can operate without ALIS connectivity for 30 days if needed.

Varying versions of these elements are already fielded at each F-35 site: Edwards AFB, Calif; Nellis AFB, Nev.; Eglin AFB, Fla.; NAS Patuxent River, Md.; and MCAS Yuma, Ariz. Italy will be the first foreign partner to have this equipment based on its soil. And the Air Force is planning to field the equipment at Luke AFB, Ariz., where the next F-35A unit is set to be established by year-end.

One of the complex tasks ahead, however, is to field SOU version 2, which is a more transportable and modular. This is needed to support expeditionary operations, especially those on the ship for Marine Corps initial operational capability (IOC) by the end of 2015. Though “Lockheed's past performance on ALIS has been poor, . . . over the past year they have improved their ALIS software development processes and deficiency correction process to the point where we now believe we can deliver the ALIS capabilities we have committed to support the services' IOCs,” says Bogdan. “I'm confident we'll be ready to meet Marine Corps IOC.”

Mellon acknowledges the SOU version 2 schedule is challenging. “It is not going to be a 12-inch putt, but it is not a 30-foot putt, either,” he says. “I'm pretty confident of the hardware solution. It is the other software versions . . . coupled with the hardware that presents the risk.” However, the procurement cost of the version 2 system will be about 40% less than the current version, says Perreault.

Not yet on contract for SOU version 2, Lockheed Martin has been funding the work for several months. The contract is expected by the end of September.

In concert with fielding the hardware, the company is also delivering various software versions. There have been two basic software releases for ALIS. Version 1.0.2 was the initial release fielded prior to aircraft arriving for maintainer and pilot training in July 2011. It supports operational testing. “It is a federated set of capabilities, not integrated or collocated on a single server rack,” Mellon says.

Late last year, the 1.0.3 update was issued to support operations at Eglin, Nellis, Yuma AFBs and the operational testing unit at Edwards AFB. With the improved software, “you have applications inside of ALIS transferring data back and forth,” Mellon says. “[Version] 1.0.3 is when we actually start getting that electronic link to verify data and information at the unit level to the authoritative data systems” at higher levels. Reaching that point has not been easy; this version was intended for release with the Block 1 aircraft, but delays in the aircraft delivery schedule allowed more time for engineers to work on ALIS. “Actually having an integrated solution of all the capabilities was harder than we thought,” Mellon says.

With the transition, each aircraft must be updated, a process that “takes time because the data structure going from 1.0.2 to 1.0.3 is different,” he notes. Each conversion starts on a weekend and takes up to five days.

Meanwhile, Lockheed is working on two ALIS 2 versions. The first, 2.0.0, will facilitate a transition from Windows XP to Windows 7 and operate with the Block 2B aircraft; the Marine Corps will declare IOC with Block 2B aircraft.

Eventually, ALIS will integrate more engine data from the Pratt & Whitney F135s; today, a specialized Pratt laptop is used for life management functions, though ALIS is used for maintenance.

ALIS System Architecture
Equipment Notional Beddown, Location Function
ALOUAutonomic Logistics Operating UnitClassified and Unclassified • 1 for global fleet at Lockheed Martin, Fort Worth• Fixed site (program office assessing addition of second ALOU) • Supports all ALIS functions• Central repository for logisitics, maintenance, mission planning, vehicle status and fleet health data
CPECentral Point of EntryClassified and Unclassified • 1 per country• Fixed site • National information aggregation • Allows nations some data flow control to and from ALOU• Provides linkage between commercial and military equipment
SOUStandard Operating UnitClassified and Unclassified • 1 per squadron• Fixed site • Unit-level data storage • Information exchange with CPE
OMS WSOffboard Mission Support Workstation • Multiple per squadron, number depends on customer preference• Fixed site • Display workstations for data stored in SOU• Supports mission planning and debriefing
PMAPortable Maintenance Aid • 2 per aircraft• Mobile units • Unclassified, ruggedized computer used by maintainers to connect to F-35 for health and maintenance data• Also used to track vehicle status, order parts, log maintenance tasks and display technical data
PCAPortable Classified Aid • 1 per aircraft• Mobile units • Classified version of the PMA
LOHASLow-Observable Health Assessment System • 1 per squadron• Mobile unit • Classified system that supports maintenance of F-35 low-observable condition and repair
Sources: Lockheed Martin and U.S. Defense Department