If the Defense Department was unable to fix critical flaws in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter's logistics system, what assurances are there that its next ground computer system won't face similar defects?
The top congressional watchdog office wants to know the answer to that question before the F-35 Joint Program Office jumps into a new program it may not be ready for.
In a report released Monday, the Government Accountability Office said it wants the Pentagon to scrutinize its handling of problems in the Lockheed Martin-designed Autonomic Logistics Information System, or ALIS, as it prepares to transition to the new Operational Data Integrated Network, or ODIN.
ALIS, which is used to "support operations, mission planning, supply chain management, maintenance, and other processes," has been fraught with issues. In a 2019 report, the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation Office said the system was in crucial need of "numerous workarounds, retains problems with data accuracy and integrity, and requires excessive time from support personnel."
The GAO agreed, describing it as "bulky, can be cumbersome to transport, and, when necessary, difficult to store."
Engineers have been working to address some of these problems for the last five years. But before they could succeed, the Joint Program Office announced earlier this year it would pursue a replacement for ALIS with the cloud-based ODIN, set to be ready by 2022.
But the GAO warns that "it will be imperative for the department to carefully consider and assess the key technical and programmatic uncertainties" before ODIN comes online, according to the report.
"These issues -- including how much of ALIS will be incorporated in ODIN and the extent to which DOD has access to the data it needs to play a more active role in the management of the system -- are complex, and will require significant direction and leadership to resolve," the watchdog said.
Some issues that have required ALIS software and system overhauls include security risks, inaccurate or missing data, poor user experience, and difficulty deploying with the system -- all of which has affected readiness, the GAO said.
"While users at all five F-35 locations we visited said that ALIS is performing better than it was five years ago, they also stated that the system still posed significant challenges to day-to-day F-35 operations," the report states. "Overall F-35 fleet-wide performance has been falling short of warfighter requirements -- that is, aircraft cannot perform as many missions or fly as often as required."
The GAO estimates overall sustainment costs for the F-35 -- with variants flown by the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps, as well as international partners -- will run about $1.2 trillion over a 66-year life cycle.
While ALIS is part of that cost, the DoD has not been transparent about how much it's spent on the system nor its level of improvement in recent years, the GAO said. A redesign effort could end up increasing costs, it added.
"The future of ALIS remains unclear because the department has not developed a strategy for the redesign of the system that would identify, among other things, what the system should look like, how will it be developed and managed, how it will address key risks, and how much it will ultimately cost," it said. "Without such a strategy, DOD will not be able to effectively plan for the transition from the current ALIS system, which is already embedded in over 400 aircraft across the global F-35 fleet, to whatever solution is determined."
Brig. Gen. David Abba, director of the F-35 Integration Office, told audience members at a recent Mitchell Institute Event that ODIN's future success is predicated on feedback from the very people who utilize the system most -- maintainers.
"What we're focused on is capturing the needs of our maintainers and sustainers out in the field, so that we're continuing to alleviate those pain points, and deliver them the capability that they need," he said March 9.
Modernizing the whole system requires breaking away from the old architecture software design that acted as the backbone for the machine, Abba said.
"From an ODIN perspective ... from the desire from the maintainer on the flight line, or the sustainer in the back shop who is receiving parts and moving them through the system, it should be ultimately transparent ... as [upgrades] evolve or [are] coded" over time, he said.
-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.