PARIS --- Observers have long pointed out the potential threats to national sovereignty inherent in the F-35’s logistic support architecture, and notably in the way the Autonomic Logistic Support System (ALIS), owned and operated by Lockheed Martin, monitors the status and operations of each individual F-35 aircraft, with the ability to ground it by simply turning off its systems or by withdrawing its “flight-ready” status.
But a recent story in Defense News now reveals another potential threat: the fact that ALIS can “see the number and types of parts available across the entire supply chain,” and then also “reprioritize parts.”
This means that, knowing the location and availability of all spares parts, ALIS can control which part is shipped where, and so prevent any aircraft from flying until it decides to allow the shipment of a given new parts to a given base.
This allows ALIS to control the status and availability of all F-35s in the world, and to prevent them from flying by simply programming a fault or a “hold” into the system.
This is not to suggest that the United States government would ever use such a capability to nefarious purposes – although the current spat with Turkey on the F-35 suggests things could get out of hand quickly, especially if Congress got involved – but any foreign power taking control of the central ALIS data center could, for example, “turn off” all of the F-35s operated by one unit, one country or in one region of the world, if not all.
China has already hacked into Lockheed’s computers to steal reams of data on the F-35 and other programs, so the possibility of ALIS being hacked should not be shrugged off.
Another risk, this time a commercial one, also springs to mind. Lockheed Martin owns the intellectual property rights to the F-35 and to ALIS, and it will bill worldwide F-35 operators a permanent stream of actions to support and upgrade their aircraft.
Lockheed also has wide-ranging powers to manipulate operators, should it wish to use them. Take, for example, the change in supplier of the Distributed Aperture System, that the company announced June 13. From 2023, all aircraft coming off the production line will be fitted with a Raytheon-made DAS instead of the original one supplied by Northrop Grumman.
What will countries do with their F-35s already in service? They could retrofit them with the new DAS, at a cost that Lockheed alone will determine, or they could keep the original DAS.
What then if, a few years down the road, Lockheed decides it will no longer support the older DAS? What would the options be for those countries that have kept the original DAS? Either retrofit the new one, at whatever price Lockheed will then charge, or ask Northrop to support the older one, at whatever price Northrop asks.
Neither is satisfactory, and both put the customer at the mercy of the supplier as, since Lockheed owns the IP rights and retains the software source codes, any competition for either the hardware or sustainment is impossible.
Commercial disputes and ALIS
Imagine, now, a contractual dispute between an F-35 operator and Lockheed: the company could, at any time, ground a country’s F-35s by simply turning an ALIS switch. This gives it an unbeatable negotiating lever, especially as any recourse by the customer would involve international courts and years of litigation.
As things now stand, there is no limit to what Lockheed can charge its customers for F-35 sustainment; in fact, InsideDefense reported June 21, 2018 that the Pentagon is considering buying the data rights needed to maintain the F-35 software because, “While there is a significant upfront cost attached to acquiring the data rights…..that investment could greatly reduce the program's life-cycle cost,” it quoted Lt. Gen. Lee Levy, head of the Air Force Sustainment Center, as saying.
"On average, organic software sustainment is 40 percent cheaper than what industry charges us," he said. "And when you look at the life cycle of this platform . . . there's a powerful case for us to acquire the data rights/intellectual property now because over time, I think that will generate a significant cost savings for the DOD."
As an aside, this is particularly rich, as the Pentagon and other Western governments have for decades been claiming that outsourcing to private contractors reduces costs and improves efficiency. Now, the Pentagon says it will reduce costs by 40% by taking work back, thereby contradicting its main argument for outsourcing.
“First, we pay Lockheed-Martin exorbitant R&D billions to develop mission, C3 and ALIS software (that doesn't work), and now we're going to negotiate to pay them more billions to buy back the data rights we paid to develop,” said a noted critic of the F-35 enterprise.
Now, as Lockheed’s main customer, the Pentagon has the commercial and legal clout to obtain these IP rights, even if it has to pay through the nose for them.
This is not true of foreign governments, who could be charged even higher mark-ups by Lockheed without any recourse – and with the threat of an ALIS-generated groundings to help them decide whether to pay or to litigate.
Now, now-one can plausibly imagine a global corporation like Lockheed resorting to such heavy-handed tactics to indulge in price-gouging of foreign governments, even if the way it has structured the F-35 enterprise’s IP rights and sustainment process is clearly intended to grow corporate profits.
But Lockheed is a public company whose primary loyalty is to its shareholders, and there is no guarantee that future managers will not, at some point during the F-35’s estimated 70-year service career, take advantage of this.
Events in the past 20 years have repeatedly shown that the only loyalty corporate managers have is to their bottom line and to their paychecks, so history and human nature suggests that what is unthinkable today may happen tomorrow, leaving foreign air forces – and foreign nations’ security – at the mercy of corporate greed.
Twenty years ago, no-one could have imagined the sub-prime crisis that almost wrecked the world economy, but it did happen, and it was created out of nothing by corporate greed. So, no-one can say that an ALIS-enabled commercial dispute can never happen.
What is surprising is that so many governments, hypnotized by the magic “fifth-generation” mantra, have failed to take the most elementary precautions to protect their investments – and their sovereignty.