American and foreign users of the F-35 fighter got some good news recently with the January 2020 announcement that ALIS (Autonomic Logistics Information System) was being replaced by ODIN (Operational Data Integrated Network). The first ODIN components will be delivered by late 2020 but ODIN won’t be fully operational until 2022. This is a big deal because ALIS did not work and, when it seemed like it was working, it was often working against the user. In development for over a decade, ALIS was not considered ready for users until 2016, or 2017 or 2018 depending on who you ask.
ALIS has already cost over half a billion dollars to develop and in late 2018 the developer (Lockheed-Martin, the manufacturer of the F-35) was given a contract to build a new version of ALIS that works. The new system is ODIN and it takes advantage of new technology like more efficient software development tools that get apps working more quickly. The new apps are easier to use, maintain and upgrade. A new developer team was assembled which included one of the pioneering firms in the development of new software tools.
Lockheed-Martin is involved but not in charge and their main contribution is delivering the long list of things that went wrong with ALIS and why. This is a “things to avoid and/or fix” list for ODIN developers. The new system will also incorporate all the new F-35 performance data that ALIS sometimes choked on. ODIN will make access easier with a cloud-based system. The to-do list for ODIN incorporates all the user complaints about ALIS that needed fixing plus suggestions that were never acted on.
Lockheed-Martin, in cooperation with the U.S. Navy and Air Force, created ALIS and its software to handle aircraft maintenance more efficiently. ALIS was developed with the F-35 in mind and as an automated supply system and maintenance scheduler that would eventually be used by most other American military aircraft. ALIS was more than just an automated method for ordering spare parts, special maintenance equipment and services. ALIS was meant to be integrated with mission planning software systems used by F-35 pilots and units to plan missions. ALIS was also a key component of fleet management, to collect and make available data on all F-35s each user nation operates. Lockheed-Martin was also supposed to use all fleet management data to determine which upgrades or fixes were needed for F-35 components. All those ALIS features did work as they were supposed to.
Foreign customers had additional complaints because ALIS was being forced on them and one of those customers, Israel, refused to depend on ALIS exclusively for F-35 maintenance and other services. Another problem foreign customers had was that all the information on their ALIS supported aircraft was sent back to the United States. Some of this data, like who was flying a mission and what the mission was for, was protected by local laws and that, plus continued software development problems were bothering foreign F-35 users a lot.
Then there are the American political problems related to ALIS and the F-35. For example, Lockheed-Martin, in order to obtain maximum political support for the F-35, selected suppliers with an eye towards where they were, in addition to what they could do. The object of this (a common practice) was to have suppliers in as many of the 435 Congressional districts as possible, especially those held by a politician providing crucial support for keeping the F-35 project funded. This meant that there are more suppliers than actually needed and that security in any networked supply system is only as strong as the weakest company connected to the network. While testing the network security on ALIS actual and potential vulnerability to hackers was revealed as a major weakness. Fixing it is difficult because so many suppliers are involved and the demands of foreign users have made the task even more difficult.
ALIS is more than just a convenient way to order spare parts and other F-35 maintenance supplies and services. It also contains analysis capabilities that predict the health of individual F-35s, based on what they have been doing. If an enemy can break into ALIS, they know what the F-35 fleet (of, eventually, several thousand aircraft) has been doing and what is being planned. The building, maintaining, and making ALIS more resistant to attack was itself a multi-billion dollar project. Failure to protect ALIS puts all F-35s at risk. It’s a new vulnerability, the dark side of the many benefits coming from the use of networks and new analytics capabilities. Fixing this was a major reason for quickly moving forward with ODIN
ALIS was also another example of a large Department of Defense software development project that was mismanaged and not only failed to deliver the specified benefits but actually makes the situation it was supposed to improve worse. Current users spent more and more time working around ALIS rather than with it. ALIS is considered a liability rather than an asset and many users have developed or adapted other software to do things ALIS is supposed to take care of, like determining which aircraft are combat-ready and which need what sort of maintenance.
ALIS was supposed to be a victory for the efficient use of software to manage complex aircraft. Instead, ALIS is a complication new F-35 users don’t want. Even if ALIS was upgraded to work as promised, many users, especially foreign ones would still be wary of trusting or using it. All this made it clear that ALIS had to be replaced and quickly. Time will tell if ODIN is the solution or just ALIS with a new and very expensive paint job.