Risks seen with Lockheed's F-35 fighter logistics system

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A failure in the computer-based logistics system that serves as the "brains" of Lockheed Martin Corp's LMT.N F-35 fighter jet could potentially ground the fleet because it lacks a back-up for processing data, according to a congressional report.

F-35 Bravo Lightning II stand ready on the deck of amphibious assault ship USS Wasp for day two of the first phase operational testing in the Atlantic Ocean in this handout photo taken May 19, 2015 and provided by the U.S. Navy. REUTERS/U.S. Navy/Chief Mass Communication Specialist Willam Tonacchio/Handout via Reuters

The Government Accountability Office, the research arm of Congress, on Thursday released two reports on the $379 billion F-35 program, including one on the jet’s $16.7 billion Autonomic Logistics Information System, or ALIS.

The second report, on the overall health of the Pentagon’s biggest weapons program, said acquisition costs had decreased since 2014 and manufacturing efficiency was improving, but the program still faces difficult software testing and big affordability challenges in coming years.

ALIS supports everything from the plane’s operations, pilot scheduling, mission planning and supply chain management to maintenance, making it one of the three major components of the jet, along with the airframe and engine.

The Pentagon’s F-35 program manager, Air Force Lieutenant General Chris Bogdan, has repeatedly cited concerns about ALIS, which is so large it could be a separate arms program.

However, earlier this year, Bogdan told reporters that the F-35 jets could operate for a month or more without being connected to the ALIS system.

The GAO report recommended the Pentagon develop a holistic plan to address myriad issues with ALIS to ensure that the most pressing problems are resolved before the start of full production, instead of dealing with issues on a piecemeal basis.

It also cited a Pentagon-commissioned study from 2013 that found any delays or problems with ALIS could drive the cost of the overall F-35 program up by $20 billion to $100 billion.

On Thursday, Bogdan said the F-35 program office had taken steps earlier this year to map out strategic priorities for ALIS and meet the needs of the program’s increasing global footprint. He said the plan would be completed this summer, in time to help shape the fiscal 2018 budget request.

The program office was planned to complete an assessment by the end of the year so it could develop a comprehensive training plan for the ALIS system.

GAO said one of the biggest concerns raised by 120 F-35 pilots, maintenance staff, contractors and program officials interviewed for the report was the lack of a redundant system for processing ALIS data.

Reliance on a single point of entry for all ALIS data and a single main ALIS operating unit in Fort Worth, Texas, means a weather-related loss of electricity or other failure could affect fleet operations or even ground it, GAO said.

GAO said Pentagon officials told investigators they recognized the risk and were in the early stages of trying to buy up to two more ALIS operating units for back-up, though no funds had been allocated for that purpose at this point.

The report also raised concerns about lack of testing of a new, more deployable version of ALIS, the inability of the system to communicate with systems used to support older fighter jets and continuing information security concerns.

Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Dan Grebler, Alan Crosby and Michael Perry