WASHINGTON: In a stormy two-hour hearing, members of the House Oversight Committee lambasted Lockheed Martin and Pentagon officials for putting pilots at risk of accidents by failing to fix the F-35’s troubled maintenance system.
“Fix this now, before you have blood on your hands,” said Rep. Rashida Talib.
Criticism and concern came from both sides of the aisle, although Democrats were particularly harsh — especially regarding Lockheed Martin’s performance and what they allege is an unwillingness on the part of the defense giant to pay back the government for problematic F-35 parts.
“We cannot simply hope that these accidents never occur. These problems must be addressed,” said the committee chair, Rep. Carolyn Maloney. “The US government is a major client of Lockheed Martin. In 2019 alone, Lockheed expected to earn $41 billion in revenue from the US government, business paid for by the American taxpayers. For that much money, we can expect Lockheed to deliver products that work and that keep our service members safe. Anything else is unacceptable.”
“I also plan to look at whether legislation is needed to ensure that F-35 is meeting performance expectations,” she added.
Rep. Jackie Spear took Lockheed Martin VP for the F-35 Lightening II program Greg Ulmer to task for what she characterized as foot-dragging on the firm’s part regarding negotiations to pay back unwarranted performance incentives for parts deliveries over the past six years.
“I would like to say Mr. Ulmer, you are not a good actor in this. This is just one component. We already know that there are nine flaws on the F-35 that are identified as critical, as Priority Ones, that to my knowledge have still not been addressed,” she said. “For you not to come to the table and negotiate this $183 million really aggravates me, and should aggravate every taxpayer in this country.”
Republicans also expressed concerns about the ongoing issues with parts and the long-troubled ALIS maintenance software. But some GOP lawmakers — including the committee’s ranking Republican, James Comer — tried to lower the temperature of the rhetoric, stressing that DoD and Lockheed Martin were working hard to resolve the myriad problems.
“I am pleased to hear that progress is being made,” Comer said. “We must work together to ensure we get the best products quickly and at the least expense to the taxpayer. Increasing commercial item acquisition, competition, transparency and end-user input may all help with that.”
For their part, DoD officials testifying rushed to reassure committee members that no unsafe F-35 Joint Strike Fighters are being flown, because service maintenance personnel are certifying that all parts are air worthy before allowing planes take off.
“I have faith in our maintenance unit leaders who look at each part and determine whether the aircraft is fit to fly,’ said DoD acquisition chief Ellen Lord. “They are well versed in safety and would never make any safety compromises,”
Lord is leading the Pentagon’s effort to fix not only ALIS but the wider sustainment issues that have resulted in the F-35’s exorbitant operations and maintenance costs — estimated by the watchdog Government Accountability Office (GAO) in a May 20 report to total some $1.2 trillion (yes, trillion with a t) over the fleet’s 66-year life time. That would dwarf the up-front cost of R&D and procurement, bringing total life-cycle costs for the program to $1.6 trillion.
Gen. Eric Fick, head of the F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO), likewise said he had “full faith” in maintenance personnel.
The GAO in March issued a report that found “a persistent issue with inaccurate or missing data” in ALIS, the Autonomic Logistics Information System, used to track parts and schedule maintenance, GAO’s Director of Defense Capabilities and Management Diana Maurer told the committee. That problem has led to maintainers ignoring the system because of too many false alarms grounding planes, and instead keeping track of parts replacement and maintenance requirements by hand, she explained, which in turn raises risks that human error may actually cause pilot risk.
Personnel interviewed by GAO, Mauer said, worried that by “ignoring alerts in ALIS caused by missing or inaccurate data, squadrons could be at risk of ignoring an alert for a legitimate aircraft issue.”
She also stressed that DoD has failed to institute a number of GAO recommendations, including a recommendation that DoD establish concrete performance requirements for ALIS that dates back to 2014. The lack of such performance parameters could end up extending ALIS’s troubles to its replacement program, called the Operational Integrated Data Network (ODIN), she warned.
Fick said that the JPO and the user community is heavily involved in software development for ODIN, and stressed that DoD will own the system’s intellectual property so that maintenance, including parts replacement, can be done by the Air Force, Army and Navy rather than only by Lockheed Martin.
As I reported yesterday, the Air Force’s Kessel Run unit is lending its software expertise both to find interim fixes for ALIS and to help with development of ODIN. Today, both Lord and Fick said that maintenance crews and operators are happy with improvements to ALIS made so far.
Fick said that DoD has budgeted $540.7 million between 2021 and 2025 for ODIN, while that the JPO estimates another $70 million will be needed between now and 2022 to continue to improve ALIS. Initial operating capability (IOC) for ODIN, meaning it will be in use with one F-35 squadron, is planned for September 2021, he said, with the new system available across the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps fleets by December 2022.
The Air Force on July 13 announced that it has granted Lockheed Martin an $87.5 million indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity (ID/IQ) for transitioning ALIS to ODIN. Fick said Lockheed Martin will be providing coding for “three specific applications for ODIN,” and that the contract is for “early work associated with those apps.”
DoD’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) found in an audit last June that a big part of the ALIS breakdown lies with the fact that Lockheed Martin has been delivering parts that are not “ready for issue” (RFI) — meaning they are not ready to be installed — because they lack proper electronic tagging (known as an Electronic Equipment Logbook or EEL) that enables them to be tracked by ALIS. So ground crews are forced to keep track of the parts by hand if they are going to use them.
“According to JPO officials, on any given day, 50 percent of the F-35 fleet is flying with non-RFI spare parts,” said Assistant Inspector General Theresa Hull. She noted, however, that non-RFI parts are not necessarily faulty — a fact that Ulmer also hammered home.
“The parts are not the concern, it’s the electronic file,” Ulmer said, stressing that that “there are several layers” — both at LM and at depots — to ensure parts integrity.
“We acknowledge EELs have been a challenge, but significant improvements have been realized,” he said. “Lockheed Martin has applied diagnostic and engineering resources to resolve the issue. These challenges do not indicate that a part is flawed.”
Fick explained that the EELs “similar to a digital medical record, it tells the story of the part from cradle to grave.”
“We are aggressively targeting the root cause of EEL and non-compliance issues,” he added.
Lord noted that in June, 83 percent of parts delivered were RFI compliant, complete with EELs. Further, she said, the JPO “has also been working to negotiate more comprehensive contract terms in future sustainment contracts to ensure the contract has defined EEL and RFI metrics to measure performance.”
Fick also stressed that despite the ongoing issues, the JPO has pushed sustainment costs down over the last year to $35,000 per flying hour. The goal is to reduce that price tag to $25,000 per flying hour by 2025, he said, but he admitted that is a “stretch goal.”