WASHINGTON – A $17 billion Lockheed Martin system used since 2009 to monitor F-35 fighter jets for repairs, parts replacement and general maintenance is rife with flaws, sometimes forcing personnel to spend hours entering data by hand, according to congressional auditors.
Maintenance crews at one of five U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps bases that were reviewed “estimated they spend an average of 5,000 to 10,000 hours per year manually tracking information that should be automatically and accurately captured” by Lockheed’s system, the Government Accountability Office said in a report.
In addition, “inaccurate or missing data” in the Autonomic Logistics Information System, or ALIS, sometimes result in alerts that “an aircraft should not be flown even though it is ready for flight,” the GAO said. Airmen said the flaws are affecting the readiness of the fighter jets built by Lockheed. At one location, crews experienced as many as 400 “issues per week related to inaccurate or missing electronic records,” the report said.
The problem adds to uncertainty about the F-35, the world’s costliest weapons system. Attention long focused on the plane’s $428 billion acquisition program and on setbacks in development and production. But now the cost of sustaining the planes – estimated at about $1.2 trillion over 66 years – is what most worries military officials and lawmakers on the House Armed Services Committee panel that requested the GAO review.
A fully functioning diagnostic system at the wing and squadron level, as well as a network of depots, which has lagged, are key to reducing the estimated costs, officials said. Personnel at the five bases the GAO visited said the system has improved since 2015 as Lockheed issued three upgrades, but they “continue to report significant challenges” that are affecting day-to-day F-35 operations, the agency said.
Maintenance personnel at the bases also raised concerns similar to the Pentagon inspector general’s office, which said in June that parts from Bethesda, Md.-based Lockheed frequently lacked the electronic usage history needed to install them. The inspector general said Lockheed may have been overpaid as much as $10.6 million. This year’s defense policy bill mandated that the Pentagon take steps to recoup those dollars.
The maintenance crews “expressed concern about data integrity issues” and “told us that electronic records are frequently incorrect, corrupt or missing, resulting in ALIS signaling that the aircraft should grounded, often in cases where maintainers know that the parts have been correctly installed and safe for flight,” the GAO said.
The Pentagon announced in January that it’s phasing in a new military-managed diagnostic system intended to incorporate the best features of Lockheed’s version while offering major improvements the Air Force developed in its own software laboratories and the 309th Software Engineering Group.
Dubbed “ODIN,” after the father of the god Thor in Norse mythology, the first of the new equipment is supposed to be delivered in September, with initial use in late 2021. It’s intended to be fully operational by December 2022 for all F-35 squadrons, Lt. Gen. Eric Fick, the F-35 program manager, told an industry conference March 4.
That’s if the program stays on schedule, which has been a rarity for the almost 20-year effort to develop, produce and deploy the F-35.
In the meantime, the GAO said “we agree that the DoD is taking positive steps in addressing” the current problems and in developing the new system. The issues “are complex and will require significant direction and leadership to resolve,” the agency said.
Ellen Lord, the Defense Department’s acquisition chief, who’s kept a close watch on F-35 support challenges, told the GAO in a written response that officials “are building the strategy that will guide ODIN’s development and will include items such as key tasks, milestones and schedule.”
Lockheed spokesman Brett Ashworth said the company is working with the Pentagon on enhancements to the current system.
“We remain committed to improving speed, reducing labor and enhancing the user experience as we transition” to the government led-ODIN, he said.
Ashworth said the most recent software updates drew “very favorable user feedback,” including from Air Force units deployed to the Middle East and Europe for training exercises.
On the problem with parts records, Ashworth said Lockheed is committed to changes that “will improve user experience, reduce labor and improve part availability.”