The Defense Department and Lockheed Martin [LMT] expect to field a modernized, upgraded version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter’s Automated Logistics Information System (ALIS) by next fall, service and industry officials told lawmakers Nov. 13.

Testifying before a joint session of the House Armed Services Readiness and Tactical Air and Land Subcommittees, new F-35 Program Executive Officer Air Force Lt. Gen. Eric Fick said the Joint Program Office (JPO) and prime contractor Lockheed Martin expect to make “significant progress” on the notoriously cumbersome ALIS system by September 2020.

“We’re working that transition literally as we speak,” Fick said.

The company and the Air Force have worked to bring incremental upgrades to ALIS over the past year through several lines of effort, Defense Daily reported from the Air Force Association’s Air, Space and Cyber Conference earlier this year (Defense Daily, Sept. 16).

“We’re working … to coalesce those efforts into a single, new version of ALIS marching forward that leverages an underlying data architecture that’s expandable, with an expanding fleet in ways that the current ALIS isn’t,” Fick said. The JPO is working with the Air Force’s Kessel Run software development office – which has taken the lead on the “Mad Hatter” effort to build apps to improve ALIS workflow – as well as the Air Force’s 309th Software Squadron at Hill AFB, Utah, to field the new ALIS on schedule.

“The intent is to do it within existing program funds, but we have not finished our assessment as to whether additional funds will be needed,” Fick said.

Industry and department officials plan to field ALIS 3.5 by the end of calendar year 2019, said Greg Ulmer, Lockheed Martin’s F-35 vice president and general manager at the hearing.

An updated ALIS was just one of several requirements needed to improve the F-35’s much-maligned sustainment issues, lawmakers and government officials both said Wednesday.

“For too many years, sustainment has taken a backseat,” said Diana Maurer, director of defense capabilities and management at the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), and a panelist at Wednesday’s hearing.

“While in recent years, this has changed for the better… let there be no doubt, the program is trying to dig itself out of a big hole,” she said in her opening remarks. “Many important plans, agreements and details on how to supply and maintain the F-35 were not worked out before the Marines, Air Force, Navy and international partners began using the aircraft. As a result, we have a very capable, very expensive system that’s not flying nearly as often as planned.”

The GAO released a new report Wednesday to coincide with the hearing, titled, F-35 AIRCRAFT SUSTAINMENT:DOD Faces Challenges in Sustaining a Growing Fleet.” In it, the agency identified a variety of issues that will continue to impact the aircraft’s sustainability, including supply parts shortage and an overall lack of critical planning, as well as ALIS challenges.

“If ALIS doesn’t work, the F-35 doesn’t work and ALIS has been struggling for years,” Maurer said, adding that on the supply chain side, there are not enough spare parts to go around and F-35 parts are breaking more often than expected. Meanwhile, suppliers are taking twice as long as expected to replace those parts, and critical depot repairs won’t be completed until 2024, she noted.

“During the last fiscal year, F-35s were on average able to perform one of their main intentional missions less than two-thirds of the time, and all missions only about one-third of the time,” Maurer said. The GAO made 21 recommendations for the program, which were largely agreed to by the Defense Department, she said.

That being said, the department’s options for improving sustainment remain constrained by the overall structure for the program. “Contractors largely own the technical data, provide the spare parts and manage the global logistics system,” Maurer said.

HASC members issued a strong warning to Fick as well as the Pentagon’s top acquisition buyer, Undersecretary Ellen Lord, that while progress has been made on the sustainment front, much more effort will be needed to pull the program out of the hole it’s dug over the past two decades.

Rep Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), ranking member of the HASC readiness subcommittee, called the F-35 “an example of a program that seems … like it was designed so that it’s too big to fail.

“From the program’s inception, the Pentagon has struggled to resolve conflicts between the services regarding the Joint Strike Fighter’s requirements, failed to protect the government’s ownership of intellectual property that was funded by taxpayer dollars and failed to manage cost growth,” he said.

With over $400 billion in acquisition costs and more than $1 trillion estimated for sustainment, “We cannot afford any further mismanagement of this program,” Lamborn said.

Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), the readiness subcommittee chairman, lamented the fact that the program for too long had “insufficient scrutiny” over its plans for future sustainment, while acknowledging the progress that Pentagon and industry leaders have made over the past couple of years.

“I do think we all agree that the stakes are too high for us to allow this program to fail,” he said. “We all must take a constructive and collaborative approach toward solving the F-35 sustainment challenges.”