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F-35 – Fighter Jet Maintenance in The Age of Data

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Jet maintenance and logistics have been a huge challenge for decades. How will maintenance change as a result of new technology?

The F-35 Lightning-II Project

In 2001, Lockheed-Martin was selected as the main contractor for the US Department of Defense Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) project. This ambitious plan aimed to replace more than 3,000 operating aircraft and satisfy the needs of the US Airforce (USAF), Navy, Marines, and allied countries. The chosen design, F-35, is a family of multirole, single-seat, stealth fighter jets[i]. The massive scale project went underway as a joint effort spreading many industries and partners in and out of the US. It is the most expensive military weapons system in history, with total costs estimated at 1.5 trillion USD[ii].

The much-maligned program suffered budget inflation, design compromises, and setbacks[iii]. Though still facing criticism[iv], the project reached a substantial milestone this summer, as USAF declared[v] the F35-A ‘combat-ready’.

The road to operational capability

The F-35 is heavily digitized, with new avionics, integrated electronic sensors, displays and communications systems. Among other innovations, jet maintenance and logistics are expected to change significantly.

Maintenance and Logistics Challenges

Imagine an F-16 heading back to base after a mission. The crew identifies a radar malfunction that they cannot seem to overcome. After the jet lands, the maintenance crew gathers to inspect the aircraft. They spend hours trying to isolate the problem, just to find out that the source of it is a specific electronic subcomponent. They call the expert for this subcomponent, who works on the jet for few additional hours, but figures out it is beyond immediate repair. The crew asks the airbase logistics unit to provide the necessary spare part, but unfortunately this specific subcomponent is unavailable in base.

This scenario shows some of the difficulties inherent in maintenance operations[vi]:

  1. Malfunctions are hard to isolate and assess, and a lot of resources are spent on preventive maintenance.
  2. Efficient use of personnel is critical. Advances in aircraft technology and systems only increase the workload and expertise level needed from technical staff, while budget cuts reduce the number of trained technicians.
  3. Supply chain management is challenging. Handling inventory, storage, orders and demand variability across multiple airbases, logistic bases and production facilities.

The result: inefficiency, waste of time and money, and more importantly – increased downtime that results in inferior operational performance.

Big Data to the Rescue

With those challenges in mind, Lockheed-Martin introduced a revolutionary system for the F-35: Autonomic Logistics Information System[vii] (ALIS).

The basic idea relies on data analysis and connectivity. With many of the F-35 components digitalized, essential data can be transmitted from the jet to ground stations. ALIS provides information infrastructure that spans the entire global F-35 fleet, recording and transmitting aircraft health and maintenance information to the appropriate users on a globally-distributed network. It is a one-stop-shop that integrates a broad range of capabilities including operations, maintenance, prognostics, supply chain, customer support services, training and technical data.

alis

ALIS connectivity diagram

How would the scenario described earlier play out using ALIS? The faulty component is identified by the system automatically while the jet is in air. Technicians on the ground receive the data, and call on expert personnel. At the same time, a nearby logistics base gets an alert to arrange an immediate delivery of the necessary spare component to the appropriate airbase. By the time the jet lands – the part is on its way and the right personnel is ready to replace the part and fix the problem. Even Lockheed-Martin’s main factory in Texas receives the data, helping the company track performance and manage global inventory of spare parts.

ALIS Fleet Management

The upsides are huge: downtime is minimized and efficiency is increased. Labor hours are utilized better, and operational capability increases. The data is transparent across the supply chain, reducing the bullwhip effect and allowing a reduction of inventory and associated costs across the chain.

Reasons for concern

Despite the great advantages, there are some reasons for concern. One current problem of ALIS is reliability. Reports from 2015 suggests that 80% of issues identified by ALIS are “false positives” – maintenance problems that simply do not exist[viii].

Another, more serious issue is cyber-security. According to Pentagon’s operational test chief, ALIS could be vulnerable to cyber-attacks[ix]. Connecting some of the most sensitive national security assets to an international data system is counterintuitive. Information security needs to be a top priority, as nations cannot allow any operational data to leak. The fact that the project involves numerous nations only exasperates the problem, as some of the data is shared.

Additional investment in the system is needed to reduce these threats. Cyber-security budget should be allocated annually, as this ongoing threat can affect the entire fleet. Focusing on these challenges is essential in order to benefit from the project’s upside with minimum risk.

(799 words)


[i] F-35 Official Website https://www.f35.com

[ii] United States Government/Department of Defense: World Wide Website for official information about the Joint Strike Fighter Program http://www.jsf.mil/news/docs/20160324_Fact-Sheet.pdf

[iii] Sullivan, Tim. “The F-35 and the Tradeoff of Fallacy”. Harvard Business Review, Jan. 2013. https://hbr.org/2013/01/the-tradeoff-fallacy

[iv] Cappacio, Anthony. “Lockheed’s F-35 Still Falls Short, Pentagon’s Tester Says”. Bloomberg, Aug. 2016. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-08-24/lockheed-s-f-35-still-falls-short-pentagon-s-chief-tester-says

[v]AF declares the F-35A ‘combat ready’”. US Airforce official website, Aug. 2016. http://www.af.mil/News/ArticleDisplay/tabid/223/Article/885496/air-force-declares-the-f-35a-combat-ready.aspx

[vi] Gempis, Val. “Maintainers Challenge”, Airma n magazine, Feb. 2013. http://airman.dodlive.mil/2013/02/maintainers-challenge/

[vii] Lockheed-Martin official website: Autonomic Logistics Information System. http://www.lockheedmartin.com/us/products/ALIS.html

[viii] Everstine, Brian. “Problems plaguing F-35’s next-gen maintenance system”. Airforce Time Magazine, Apr. 2015. https://www.airforcetimes.com/story/military/2015/04/15/problems-facing-f35-maintainers-automated-system/25781075/

[ix] Malenic, Marina. “DoD chief tester warns on F-35 cyber, software issues“. Jane’s Magazine, Jan. 2016. http://www.janes.com/article/57454/dod-chief-tester-warns-on-f-35-cyber-software-issues

7 thoughts on “F-35 – Fighter Jet Maintenance in The Age of Data

  1. Interesting post! Do you think that there will be a way around the potential cyber-security threat? If nations need to share data with each other, it seems that the sending of any information necessarily opens up the potential for threats. Is it wiser to think of a way that the nations do not need to share the data inter-country? I would also be concerned on if there are any false negatives, as these seem more problematic than false positives.

    1. Thanks for the comment Kelly! Regarding reliability – I think it is a matter of time until ALIS stabilizes. With more flight hours accumulated and constant testing of the system, reliability will improve significantly. The project overcame a lot of challenges in the development process that seem much more complicated (ejection seat problems, flight control problems, software delays and many more). The F-35 is the one of the most complex technological projects of our time, and as such it is natural that development issues appear.
      Regarding the cyber-security threat – I do not see a comprehensive solution, at least not in the short-term. Until proper measures are taken, I believe that sensitive activities will result in getting the system offline or partially offline in order to avoid data from leaking. One limited solution is to allow data to flow only in some segments of the system. Sharing the information internally within a country reduces much of the risk while still utilizing most of the system’s benefits.

  2. I wonder if Lockheed could mitigate the cyber-security risk by eliminating the wireless data links between the aircraft and ground stations. Maintenance data could simply be downloaded manually from the aircraft upon return to base. Of course, this would eliminate the ability to diagnose issues in flight and minimize ground time between flights.

    “Reports from 2015 suggests that 80% of issues identified by ALIS are “false positives” – maintenance problems that simply do not exist.”

    Sounds like a sterling effort by the Lockheed Martin maintenance sales team! In all seriousness, this seems like it might create risky mistrust by aviators of key diagnostic systems.

  3. Great article Aviad!

    What you are proposing for fighter jets is already implemented for commercial airliners. For example, Rolls-Royce has the Engine Health Management Program. Every single Rolls-Royce engine in operation world-wide sends data from multiple sensors back to Rolls-Royce through satellite links. When an engine experiences issues on a cross-Atlantic flight, by the time the aircraft lands in New York, the maintenance crew on the ground already stands ready. In addition to that, the permanent engine monitoring allows damage-preventive measures to be taken. For example, if an engine shows abnormal behaviour it can be switched off before damage is done.

  4. Interesting article Maverick, I didn’t know you liked planes so much. F-35 seems pretty serious compared to something like the old F-15s. Our Watson discussion today had me thinking about onboard intelligent assistance. What kind of flight assistance systems are built into these planes and how are those on the F-35 any different (if they are)? On the topic, this article was really interesting https://www.wired.com/2016/06/ai-fighter-pilot-beats-human-no-need-panic-really/

  5. Love it Aviad. In terms of smart maintenance and false positives, could you do some form of real time double check via an expert at Lockheed or at base. Similarly, have a 2nd system on board compute the probability of this system malfunctioning, e.g., if its a common part that needs fixing parts are automatically sent but if its unlikely/rare that the failure be happening the plan does not initiate the spare part until it gets back on the ground for a technician to sign-off on. Obviously, this only exasperates the cyber security issue. I’m curious why the maintenance data is an issue, assuming there is already an open channel of communication from plane to the base, could you not tack on to that same open channel to communicate maintenance data?

  6. The upside potential in operational efficiency is quite impressive. How can this be translated to other systems within our military? In the example provided, we saw how the use of big data can reduce time (and therefore cost) in the supply chain. How would the military shift its operating model to reallocate resource? For example, what would the technicians on the ground do with the multiple hours regained from the plain “self-diagnosing” issues. If this system was widely incorporated in other technologies as well, would we see a reduced demand for resources in the military? Does this translate to less soldiers employed? Furthermore, how can this technology expand into other industries? Will our cars eventually operate on a similar model? The dealership will have data on what is wrong before the customer even brings the car in?

    Will be interesting to see how the cyber security concerns are addressed!

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