Is the often-marginal improvement in performance worth the extra personnel that may need to be brought along in the logistics trains? Is it worth the extra costs associated with transporting the new spare components? Computerized systems often require specialized diagnostic equipment to identify maintenance problems. These sometimes require their own vehicles to transport. Does the extra performance justify that?
Consider the $600,000 F-35 helmet. It works as part of the Distributed Aperture System. The system includes a series of cameras in the skin of the aircraft facing out. The images from the cameras are processed together and then projected into a visor in the pilot’s helmet. This allows the pilot to see “through” the jet’s skin so when the pilot looks down at the floor, he or she sees instead what is under the jet.
That sounds quite advanced, but just because something is advanced doesn’t mean it’s needed. To figure out if this incredibly complicated system is warranted, it is important to consider a question that is not often asked: what problem is the DAS attempting to solve? It has long been understood that fighter pilots need to be able to look around and see what is going on in the sky around them.
For generations, people have understood that the pilot who spots the enemy first has the distinct advantage in combat. That is why the best fighter planes have bubble canopies with the pilot sitting high inside the fuselage to give them the most unobstructed view possible. That is a relatively simple engineering solution to make the maximum use of the pilot’s own eyeballs, still the most effective visual instruments in existence.
In this case, it’s not clear whether the DAS actually provides a performance advantage. Test pilots have reported that the projected images in the visor lag behind the movement of their heads. F-35 pilots have had to “learn” how to move their heads properly—they can’t turn too quickly. Moreover, the images DAS produces are less clear than what pilots see with their own eyes.
“To be honest with you, I don’t really use it all that often, the reason being is that if I really want to see what is underneath me I will just look outside, I will just roll up,” one F-35 pilot said. “It doesn’t take that much longer for me to just bank up there airplane and look … Because I can see it with greater clarity … It’s just an added benefit. That is not the primary function of those cameras.”
The taxpayers are already paying for a cockpit in the F-35 with the additional cost of including the DAS. Had the services and the contractor just positioned the pilot higher in the aircraft and provided a better view through the canopy, then the taxpayers wouldn’t have to spend $600,000 for each helmet system, the troubled F-35 would have one less thing that can break, and the services wouldn’t need to carry around as many spare parts.
They also wouldn’t have to send each pilot to have his or her delicate helmet custom-fitted—a process that takes two days and is something the manufacturer, Rockwell Collins, actually brags about.
Because weapons manufacturers won’t hand over the technical data for the systems the Pentagon buys, the services are dependent on the contractor for all support. It is reasonable for a company to prevent its competition from gaining an unfair advantage, but one can’t help but think the real motivation behind withholding the technical data is that sharing it with the services might allow the services to develop maintenance procedures that would not require contractor support, thus eliminating a massive, lucrative revenue stream.
Companies need to make a profit to survive, but they should not be allowed to do so by making it more difficult for the military to accomplish its mission.
Lockheed accomplished perhaps its greatest acquisition coup by convincing the Pentagon and Congress that it would be a good idea to surrender control of the network at the very heart of the F-35’s maintenance process. The entire F-35 program depends upon a complex network called the Autonomic Logistics Information System to keep the jets flying.
ALIS plays a central role in the maintenance of the aircraft. It connects the plane’s on-board failure diagnostics with the program’s maintenance management and the logistics supply chain. ALIS is supposed to work by identifying a broken part on the F-35, automatically ordering a replacement part, and then guiding the maintenance crews through the repairs.
ALIS also manages the critical Mission Data Loads, which are large software files with information about target and threat locations, the specifics about electronic and/or infrared signatures, and all relevant mapping data. The jets need these files to properly locate targets and evade or defeat threats. These files need to be constantly updated with data gathered during missions. This information travels through the ALIS network.
According to the Lockheed Martin website, “ALIS serves as the information infrastructure for the F-35, transmitting aircraft health and maintenance action information to the appropriate users on a globally-distributed network to technicians worldwide.”
The wisdom of trusting so much functionality to a single networked system is questionable. The network is vulnerable to hacking, as the program office demonstrated by canceling a November 2015 cyber test to the network — which would have involved contracted hackers attempting to penetrate the network’s security — out of fear the tests would disrupt F-35 flight operations.
Concerns about the security of the network are so great on Capitol Hill that lawmakers added language to the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act ordering the Pentagon to review the F-35 program’s vulnerabilities to cyber-attack. Congress gave the Pentagon six months to submit a report detailing potential threats and the plan to address them.
Of more immediate concern is the simple fact that the prime contractor has created a situation in which they have total control of this this part of the program. ALIS “resides on the backbone network of Lockheed Martin,” according to the Pentagon’s acting testing director, David Duma.
The Pentagon, with the apparent consent of Congress, has allowed Lockheed to retain control of a system vital to the day-to-day operations of what is supposed to be the aircraft at the center of the fleet of three services. And management of this system does not come cheap. The Department of Defense has estimated the total cost to purchase and operate ALIS will be $16.7 billion over the program’s expected 56-year lifespan, but a Pentagon-commissioned report concluded that these costs could rise to $100 billion due to schedule slips and functionality problems.
Carl Von Clausewitz articulated the concept of friction in war nearly two centuries ago. Friction is the accumulation of little problems and difficulties that make the accomplishment of any mission in war difficult. No amount of effort can eliminate friction entirely for the military, but civilian and military leaders can make decisions during times of peace that can greatly reduce sources of friction in war. Buying overly complex weapon systems that require thousands of civilians to support in war is not the way to do that.
The Pentagon needs to stop buying, and Congress needs to stop authorizing, weapon systems that operate with only a single contractor’s support. The government should never sign a contract for a program that does not include receiving full data rights for the system. Anything less is a betrayal of the men and women who will have to trust their lives to it, and a betrayal of the American taxpayers. A weapon system can’t simply be judged by the expected combat performance.
Decision-makers must also consider the costs in terms of the financial and logistical burdens involved to achieve that performance. Any expected combat performance must outweigh total costs involved. As a general rule, any weapon system should be kept as simple as possible and still get the job done.
Image Credit: Creative Commons/Flickr.
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