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Let Humans Override F-35 ‘ALIS’ Computer: Bogdan

by Brendan McGarry on February 25, 2014

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The head of the U.S. Defense Department’s F-35 fighter jet program said he will probably allow pilots and maintainers to manually override the aircraft’s automatic logistics system in some situations.

The Autonomic Logistics Information System, or ALIS (pronounced “Alice”), determines whether the plane is safe to fly. The system has notoriously recommended grounding functioning aircraft — against the recommendations of pilots and maintainers — due in part to faulty parts numbers listed in its database, officials said in a recent segment on the CBS News program, “60 Minutes.”

The rigidity of the technology invited comparisons not to the friendly robot R2-D2 of the “Star Wars” movies, but to the more menacing machine HAL 9000 of the sci-fi flick, “2001: A Space Odyssey.” It was something deliberately built into the system under the assumption that ALIS was always going to function properly.

“When we first put the airplanes out there, we told operators and maintainers, ‘You can never override ALIS. Ever,’” Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, who manages the F-35 program, said during a conference on the defense budget Tuesday at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. The event was hosted by Credit Suisse and McAleese & Associates, a Sterling, Va.-based consulting group.

“Well guess what?” he added. “ALIS doesn’t always work right and it is not the font of all knowledge about the airplane because I got maintainers out there who fix the airplane, I’ve got pilots who go out and pre-fly the airplane, and everyone in the enterprise thinks the airplane is ready to go except ALIS.”

Bogdan asked, “Do we need to start doing that? Yeah.” He added, “We can’t do that wholesale, but we need to do that in a measured way.”

His comments echoed those made by Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Robert Schmidle. “We need to have the ability to override the algorithms that are built into that system to determine whether an aircraft is safe to fly or not,” he said during the television segment. “I didn’t design ALIS. I didn’t develop ALIS. I’m trying to do everything I can to make ALIS work for us.”

The system within the past two weeks received a software update that should help to fix some of the previous problems, Bogdan said. He was confident of the upgrade and encouraged attendees to check in with maintainers directly to see how it’s performing. “This time we actually took a step forward and didn’t take a step back,” he said of the computer fix.

Even so, Bogdan acknowledged the system is “way behind” where it needs to be at this stage of the program.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program is the Pentagon’s most expensive acquisition effort, estimated last year to cost $391 billion to develop and build a total of 2,457 F-35 Lightning IIs. The fifth-generation, single-engine jet is made by Lockheed Martin Corp. and designed to replace such aircraft as the F-16, A-10, F/A-18 and AV-8B.

The helmet-mounted display, which receives data from the plane’s radar, cameras and antennae, “is doing OK” — good enough to warrant canceling the development of an alternative helmet, Bogdan said.

The testing of fusing sensor data into the F-35 computer from other platforms — F-22, ground radar, satellites — will begin in 2015, Bogdan said. Such so-called multi-function fusion “is a hard thing to do” and is an area of risk, he said.

While he said he remains concerned over recent cracking to the bulkhead of the F-35B model — the subject of a recent test report — Bogdan said it likely stemmed from a previous decision to change the material to aluminum from titanium to reduce the weight of the aircraft.

That version of the plane is for the Marine Corps and needs to be light enough to land like a helicopter aboard amphibious ships and other naval vessels.

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