Like everything about the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, the maintenance and fleet-monitoring system is a vast undertaking. To support what has been branded the world's first multinational fifth-generation fighter, Lockheed Martin is constructing a fifth-generation logistics support network. Known as ALIS – autonomic logistics information system – the project is reportedly so large that if it were separated from the overall F-35 budget it would still be one of the biggest defense procurement programs of all time.

When complete, ALIS will provide continuous, centralized monitoring of the health and performance of every F-35 in the world, down to the level of individual components. Each jet will synchronize post-mission data via deployed networking tools, creating a database of platform, subsystem and component performance that will be centrally stored and analyzed.

"If you think of a day in the life of the F-35 you have to get it ready to fly, you have to go fly it, and you have to bring it back, repair it, maintain it and turn it around for the next mission," says Jeff Streznetcky, Lockheed Martin's ALIS director. "ALIS is the single, one-stop shop that all the users of the system log in to and do their work through, so it is really a new fifth-generation capability for logistics.

"Previous aircraft [use] discrete IT [information technology] systems to manage that very complex life cycle in federated systems," he continues. "When you have multiple systems to maintain, that increases life-cycle costs. So the big thing about going to a single integrated system is it centralizes all the life-cycle costs in one area, and over the life of the program will return great savings compared to a legacy system."

Beyond IT costs, the gains provided ought to be considerable. Fleet-wide awareness of component failure, coupled with a detailed history of each individual airframe, should permit an understanding from a design perspective of the conditions that led to any issue, and enable the proactive provision of fleet-wide fixes to problems that, for many aircraft, have not even occurred yet. A feature that enables jets to download preliminary data sets while still in the air – to be implemented as part of the aircraft's Block 4 software drop – can give maintainers at the operating location advance notice of specific work required, thus decreasing time the aircraft has to spend in the hangar.

But for all its potential, ALIS also presents considerable challenges. As well as issues surrounding security (see panel opposite), the sheer scale of the enterprise means the system is among the most complicated IT projects ever mounted. Progress is, of necessity, iterative.

"ALIS is developing in parallel and concurrently with the aircraft," Streznetcky says. "The development plan was designed to release incremental blocks of capability in three major steps – an ALIS 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0. In March of 2015 we rolled out ALIS 2.0 to all sites around the globe – that includes nine sites in the U.S., our flight-test locations as well as operational locations, and the final assembly and checkout [FACO] facility in Italy. We also have an installation on the USS Wasp: that has ALIS 2.0 installed on it today. In the laboratory environment and at the flight-test locations I have a 2.0.1 version of ALIS. It is in the final stages of integration and test, and is on track to support Marine Corps IOC later this summer."

The key differences between the Marine Corps IOC version and the 2.0 ALIS are deployability and portability.

"The standard operating unit is the ALIS hardware, and it's deployed and is used to support a squadron," Streznetcky explains. "We changed the physical packaging of that kit [so that] instead of having one large server rack we broke it down into two-man liftable containers. Not only does it give them the flexibility to make it an easier deployment on land, but also it allows them to get the system down through the tight passageways and hatches you would have in a shipboard environment."

The final 3.0 release is currently scheduled for early 2017, with another gap-bridging iteration – 2.0.2 – due in mid-2016 to support U.S. Air Force initial operating capability.

"What the Air Force will be able to do is take small detachments of aircraft and personnel, and deploy them remotely," says Streznetcky. "The changes we're introducing to ALIS will facilitate that concept of operation."

As the number of operating locations increases, the operational concept for ALIS is changing. A central operations room – nicknamed Mother ALIS – has been operating at Lockheed's Fort Worth plant, but may not be the right construct to manage the growing multinational fleet. The possible creation of regional ALIS centers ­– which would handle parts ordering, spares supply and maintenance-related logistics for aircraft located nearby – is being considered, to perhaps run in tandem with a central ops room devoted to tracking fleet-wide data.

Pentagon efforts to identify cost savings in ALIS included events held in 2012 to diversify the supply chain. It is possible that regional ALIS centers could be run by entities other than Lockheed.

"I wouldn't necessarily rule that out," says Streznetcky. "The decision will be made based on what's best for the warfighter and what's the most affordable solution for all the customers."