By Andrea Shalal
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. (Reuters) - Long delays in Lockheed Martin Corp's development of a computer-based logistics system for the F-35 fighter jet pose the biggest threat to the U.S. Air Force's plan to declare the aircraft ready for combat next summer, the head of the Pentagon's F-35 program office said.
"It's the thing that worries me most," Air Force Lieutenant General Chris Bogdan said in an interview at the annual Air Force Association conference. "We're on a full court press with ALIS," the Autonomic Logistics Information System.
ALIS will consolidate all functions handled separately on older aircraft programs. These include automatically capturing and disseminating data about the F-35's performance and components, pilot and technician training, scheduling, technical data, and the ordering of parts.
Bogdan said his office had been working closely with Lockheed to ensure the company was putting its "A-team" on the project after years of delays and missed deadlines.
"We're going to need it. When we start putting airplanes overseas, the expectation is that our partners will use ALIS and it has to connect to their legacy systems. It's really hard and it's not working right," he said late Tuesday. Israel is slated to get its first jets in December 2016.
Bogdan applauded plans by Lockheed to make organizational changes to improve its performance on ALIS, and said he still hoped the new software would be completed in time for the Air Force to declare an initial squadron of jets ready for combat in August 2016.
U.S. officials say the overall $391 billion F-35 program has turned the corner after years of cost and technical challenges, with production set to increase and costs coming down.
Lockheed is developing three models of the jet for three U.S. military services and nine countries that have placed orders: Britain, Australia, Norway, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, Israel, Japan and South Korea.
But the ambitious ALIS system, a project with nearly as many lines of software code as the aircraft, continues to challenge the jet's developers. Lockheed says each F-35 jet will have more than 8 million lines of code, more than any other U.S. or allied jet in history.
The system has faced long delays and faulty messages caused by insufficient data about the lifespan of key parts, such as landing gear. Unexpected glitches also occurred when the system was plugged into congested computer networks at military bases.
Bogdan said the key problem was that ALIS was initially viewed as a piece of support equipment, instead of an integral computer backbone for the jet, and Lockheed did not apply the same engineering "discipline" it had in designing the jet.
He said Lockheed was paying closer attention after several missed ALIS deadlines cost it award fees on the overall program.
He said the Pentagon and Lockheed were not looking at removing planned capabilities from the system, but could likely defer upgrades planned after 2018 to focus on "really trying to get the basic capability to work as best we can."
Lockheed said its work on the latest version of ALIS, known as ALIS 2.0.2, was on track for on-time delivery, and two earlier releases were fielded on time.
"We are working closely with our customers to deliver the most effective, efficient fleet management system to sustain the F-35 over the next 50 years," said spokeswoman Sharon Parsley.
The new software will add data about the F135 engine built by Pratt & Whitney, a unit of United Technologies Corp, and a networking feature to more easily establish connections between deployed locations and home stations.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Richard Chang)