Sunday, April 24, 2016

Is the F-35 in trouble because of this? I don't know, but I doubt it.

Before I even get started on this post, I really wish somebody would do something really nice for me, because going through the GAO report on this issue was torture. Like all other government agencies, the GAO doesn't use 10 words when 100 will do. Despite all of that verbosity, it seems clear that the GAO thinks that the F-35 program has serious problems.

But I don't think so, at least not in the same way the GAO does. The General Accounting Office, which is a bean-counting agency, not a military agency, seems to have issued a report revealing problems with the F-35's computerized logistics system. For God's sake, don't try to read the entire thing. It will kill you. Still, please note that this system, known as ALIS, has no actual impact on the F-35's ability as a fighter aircraft in any direct sense.

Nonetheless, The Daily Mail, a liberal rag in the United Kingdom, has blown this report up as some sort of death sentence for the F-35. I have spent a considerable amount of time with the GAO report, and I disagree. It's not great, but it is the sort of reporting you would expect from a newspaper that does not want the U.K. to purchase the F-35 from the United States. Further, it is the sort of report you might expect about an extremely expensive weapons system from an extremely liberal administration that really doesn't want to buy weapons systems.

While the GAO is supposed to be nonpartisan, so is the Environmental Protection Administration, and I don't think anyone believes that, either. Career government jobs are held primarily by liberals -- conservatives go to the private sector and make a lot more money in exchange for less security -- and under the Obama administration, of course, the appointed heads of those agencies are as liberal as they come. So take "nonpartisan" with a grain of salt.

So what is the report about? The Autonomic Logistics Information System is described in the GAO report as "a complex system that supports operations, mission planning, supply-chain management, maintenance, and other processes." Please not that the system does not control the airplane itself in any way. ALIS is a highly sophisticated system that keeps maintenance crews updated on needed maintenance, pilots updated on mission plans, logistics personnel updated on what materiel is needed to support upcoming missions and the like. All very important tasks. Enough to ground the plane, as The Daily Mail and the GAO claim? Maybe not. Let's dig deeper.

The Daily Mail focuses on software problems and the fact at the ALIS system relies on a central server that is not located at the same place as the aircraft, which can complicate things in remote locations:
So far, the software has been so flawed that maintenance crews have had to resort labour-intensive alternatives.
According to National Interest, in one instance maintainers had to manually burn data onto CDs and to send the massive files across a civilian WiFi network.
One major problem, the report said, is that the F-35 data produced goes through a single main operating unit which has no back up.
National Interest, a pretty good publication on national security that is cited by The Daily Mail, goes into a bit more detail:
ALIS is the ground-based computer system meant to diagnose mechanical problems, order and track replacement parts, and guide maintenance crews through repairs. It also allows pilots to plan missions and later review their performance. At least, it’s supposed to do all of those things. So far, the software has been so flawed that maintenance crews have had to resort to time-consuming workarounds. In one instance, maintainers even had to manually burn data onto CDs and drive off base to send the massive files across a civilian WiFi network.
So ALIS is supposed to help ground crews keep the aircraft up and running while also assisting pilots in evaluating their mission performance. Worthy goals. Even National Interest, though, while criticizing the failures of ALIS, acknowledges that the problems can be dealt with.

Ultimately, ALIS will be fixed. The GAO's main gripes with the system actually are not that it doesn't work, per se, but that there are not redundant backups and that it might be hard to use in remote locations:
The Department of Defense (DOD) is aware of risks that could affect the F-35’s Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS), but does not have a plan to ensure that ALIS is fully functional as key program milestones approach. ALIS users, including pilots and maintainers, in GAO’s focus groups identified benefits of the system, such as the incorporation of multiple functions into a single system. However, users also identified several issues that could result in operational and schedule risks. These include the following:
• ALIS may not be deployable: ALIS requires server connectivity and the necessary infrastructure to provide power to the system. The Marine Corps, which often deploys to austere locations, declared in July 2015 its ability to operate and deploy the F-35 without conducting deployability tests of ALIS. A newer version of ALIS was put into operation in the summer of 2015, but DOD has not yet completed comprehensive deployability tests.
• ALIS does not have redundant infrastructure: ALIS’s current design results in all F-35 data produced across the U.S. fleet to be routed to a Central Point of Entry and then to ALIS’s main operating unit with no backup system or redundancy. If either of these fail, it could take the entire F-35 fleet offline.
DOD is taking some steps to address these and other risks such as resolving smaller ALIS functionality issues between major software upgrades and considering the procurement of additional ALIS infrastructure but the department is attending to issues on a case-by-case basis. DOD does not have a plan that prioritizes ALIS risks to ensure that the most important are expediently addressed and that DOD has a fully functional ALIS as program milestones draw close. By continuing to respond to issues on a case-by-case basis rather than in a holistic manner, there is no guarantee that DOD will address the highest risks by the start of full-rate production in 2019, and as a result, DOD may encounter further schedule and development delays, which could affect operations and potentially lead to cost increases.
These are legitimate gripes. They also ignore the fact that, until very recently, aircraft maintenance, supply chain and the other functions of ALIS were performed without a computer program telling everyone what to do, step by step. While ALIS obviously simplifies those tasks, those tasks somehow got accomplished before ALIS existed, pretty much since the dawn of combat aviation. Go figure.

The problem here is that GAO, as a bean counter organization, is looking at the potential cost to "fix" ALIS, a project the GAO estimates at $20 billion to $100 billion. That's a pretty broad range, indicating that the GAO really has no fucking idea what needs to be done to "fix" ALIS or what that will cost. The total life-of-program cost of the F-35 is $1.3 trillion, $900 billion of which is operations and sustainment -- the costs to keep the plane in the field. It is not at all clear that the cost to "fix" ALIS, to the extent that it is actually broken, will exceed the initial $16.7 billion cost of ALIS. If that is the case, doubling the cost of having a redundant ALIS system that works in remote areas would be little more than a rounding error in the total program cost. I'm not saying the total program cost was a great idea -- anyone who reads this blog knows I am not a believer in one-size-fits-all aircraft -- but if we're spending that kind of coin, it won't kill us to spend a little more to get it right.

The Department of Defense has spent a lot of time telling Congress and others that ALIS is a critical component of the F-35 that makes the plane worth the price. That might be true, or it might not. We're probably too far along in the program to throw the whole thing out, but I don't think logistics software, which has no impact on combat performance in any direct sense, would make it worth grounding the fleet. I'm sure there are things that ALIS does that are classified and wonderful, but there obviously are ways around the shortcomings the GAO cites. Fixes will come, and they will cost money. But I wouldn't bet on any of the problems cited in the GAO report resulting in a halt to the F-35 program, or even a grounding of the fleet.

Hat tip to Hot Air.

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