Sustainability: The Missing Factor in the U.S. Defense Debate


By Dr. Robbin Laird

06/20/2011 – The U.S. defense debate is being framed as defined by constrained fiscal choices and program cuts.  Also, the real need for a strategic review for the post-Afghan military is pressing.

But rampant so-called “contingency” operations are sucking up operational money and draining procurement capabilities to shape a new more capable and cost-effective force.

Missing from the debate is the central impact of much higher sustainability delivered by newer platforms.  And the debate is shaped by thinking in terms of platform-centric initial procurement cost rather than thinking in terms of fleet performance and sustainability capabilities.

If sustainability does not become central to re-shaping the U.S. military, future U.S. President’s will have less and less capability available to them over time.  The U.S. military will look like today’s U.S. Coast Guard, which can surge to one crises but watch others unfold with very limited engagement.

If future President’s wanted to have one-theater deployable forces, the current trajectory will get them there.

This does not have to happen.

But a cultural change in the mindset of political and military leaders is crucial to have change you can believe in.  New systems bought for properly sourced fleets with new digital maintainability capabilities are central to building a future force.  And this force will be more capable and operate at much reduced operating cost.

(Credit: SLD)(Credit: SLD)

Digital systems allow many changes to occur throughout the military.  We have already seen these changes in the commercial sector, and it is difficult to believe that the military cannot mimic such changes.

First, there is a significant reduction in the touch labor required to maintain modern vehicles or planes.  The computer chips provide sensors and information, which allows a significant migration of knowledge to the machine, rather than relying upon armies of maintainers.

Second, the machines can tell when maintenance needs to be done.  Rather than having a manpower intense scheduled maintenance regime, the platform tells you when it needs to be maintained.

Third, firms like Fed Ex manage fleets.  They buy with a fleet in mind and with as much commonality as possible.  This allows them to drive down cost by supporting more assets with common maintenance procedures and operations.

Fourth, commercial aerospace firms build their products with maintainability as a key driver.  And they can use incentivized-based systems such as fly by hour to gain savings, which they can then invest in evolving the systems, which they build to optimize operational savings.

Fifth, the commercial standard is clearly to manage a supply chain to build and sustain a fleet.  The global supply chain to produce modern products is assembled by manufacturers to deliver a viable and cost effective product.  The same supply chain is used to deliver support.  Having a core firm to manage both is a cost driver both for support as well as gaining information about planned product improvements.

Commercial best practices are built upon the management of a single supply chain for both manufacturing and sustainment.  This allows the company to understand the performance of parts in the field and allows the company to then use that information to enhance the reliability of parts manufactured for the final assembly line.  It allows as well for parts simplification and improvements

Sustainability is a combination of logistics and maintainability considerations combined.  Designing a more sustainable product, which can operate fleet wide, should be one of the very core procurement principles.

But it does not even exist on the playing field.  The questionable notion of life-cycle costs is used but has little or no real meaning as key drivers of life cycle costs are often outside of the domain of a platform considered by itself or fleet wide.

Additionally, one needs to buy fleetwide.  Savings will come from pooling resources, something that cannot happen if you buy a gaggle of aircraft, rather than operating a common fleet.  Just ask Fed Ex what commonality for their fleet delivers in terms of performance and savings.

(Credit: SLD)(Credit: SLD)

A 21st century sustainability focus for the military requires a cultural revolution.  And even more so for the politicians and civil servants who frame procurement choices.  Even though no platform fights alone, you would not know that from U.S. procurement strategy.  Support costs should not be the last item to be considered; rather they are the bedrock for sound procurement decisions.

As any consumer knows, buying a less expensive tool or toy can be penny wise and pound-foolish.  We need to bring Ben Franklin into the DOD to shape procurement strategy.  Efficiencies pursued with little or no regard to sustainability and capability are hardly credible.

The fifth generation aircraft versus legacy aircraft “discussion” is a case in point.  Even though the Indians have recently concluded that 40-year airframes are not a good foundation for building future airpower, DOD continues to buy such aircraft.  And does so with little or no regard to the impact of the maintenance revolution on their strategic choices.  Apparently, touch labor is free as well as the depots.

The Cultural Revolution associated with the 5th generation aircraft promises significant labor savings, which translates into personnel reductions.

The cost of maintaining 4th generation aircraft is an oft-overlooked aspect of looking at cost of keeping the old and introducing the new. Higher sustainability means a reduce maintenance activity; and the fact that each maintenance action requires fewer maintainers on the 5th generation aircraft than on older legacy aircraft.

The integrated sensors and data systems on the aircraft provide significant abilities to repair when needed and to ramp up sortie generation rates.

The technology inherent in the aircraft allows dramatic reductions in training costs as well.  Each key touch labor player on a legacy aircraft needs to trained and maintained.  With chips and software being used for significant diagnostic work, the new maintainers manage data and know where to go on the plane as needed and when needed.

The new aircraft are built with significant reductions in many parts, which currently need to be maintained.  A key case in point is hydraulic systems.  The F-35 has 80% less hydraulic systems than legacy aircraft.  And with these reductions come easy of entry into the aircraft to maintain the rest.  Fewer parts; less trouble; fewer maintainers; quicker turnaround time; higher sortie generation rates.  What is there not to like here?

Fleet considerations are significant for the F-35 as well.  Inherent in the technology is the ability to do US and allied fleet wide maintenance. As General (retired) Cameron put it in an interview:

The real beauty of the F-35 program is the fact that you can look out across the entire fleet, all the international partners, all the domestic partners, and tell immediately if there are systemic fleet wide issues.  The program can share assets to ensure a surge capability to wherever it’s needed and can share the robust supply chain that’s already established on the F-35 production line. Our experiences with the F-16 highlight another major advantage of the F-35 approach.   The F-16 has been a highly successful program.  However, configuration management has been a challenge because it has been handled at the individual service level. Therefore, there are roughly 130 configurations of the F-16.  The operators, when prosecuting the air battle, have to know the precise configuration of each F-16 in order to know what capabilities it brings to the fight.  The sustainment of the F-16 is even more challenging with spares not being interchangeable among F-16 variants. The F-35 is a common configuration so interoperability is the key in both operations and sustainment.

But this will not happen without a cultural revolution.

In a recent interview with MGySgt Thomas McKay, Aircraft Maintenance Chief, HQMC Aviation Logistics, the challenge to shape a cultural revolution was underscored:

Q: The other piece of this is global deployment.  If US planes are operating in Japan and the Japanese buy F-35s then spares availability for both fleets goes up by being able to share parts, and one can see those parts within the digital system.

Margolis:  That makes complete sense.  And I know the program officers working through this because it is easier-said-than-done. When you’re transferring a part from Country A to Country B even though the aircraft is sitting right next to each other during an exercise in country X, things like customs, clearance, and your trade rules, and laws, have to be sorted through. I know the program office is working through all those, but conceptually, it makes sense to you that you should be able to transfer a part from Country A to Country B, if that’s the only part that’s there.  It makes sense from a global support perspective.

Q: It’s really a cultural revolution; you are going to have to think very, very differently to get the kind of outcome you want.  And the outcome you’re going to get is less cost, greater availability worldwide, and for the U.S. and its allies having greater capability forward deployed for less cost.  This is a huge gain for us, potentially, but not if we don’t restructure how we think and how we work.

McKay: When I first got into the program a couple of years ago, the Nirvana was a USMC jet can land in an Air Force-Navy Base that has F-35s and be repaired, and fly home.  The reality is that nobody else wants to play in that world; the Air Force and the Navy have no desire to play the game that way.  Even the Marines at some point along the way have a real problem with somebody else fixing their toys and calling it good.

There is no standardization of maintenance practices among the services, let alone internationally. You’re talking an entirely different nightmare of, “I’m over-flying some other country, you need to land for whatever emergency, and need to get fixed.”  Traditionally, you send a maintenance crew from very far away to fix that one aircraft, takes days, and then you fly home.  Where if it was already resident on the base, why couldn’t you fix it right there with what you’ve got?

Q: In this case, the technology is playing the role of the forcing function for change in the maintenance approaches?

McKay: Absolutely. If they fix F-35s, they fix F-35s; it’s pretty standard schooling internationally.  We do it currently with commercial aircraft.

But there is a solution waiting to happen.

Q: Why not use the common maintenance training facility at the JSF training compound at Eglin? One could build a cadre of cross-service folks who could shape that dictionary or build that language because you’re trying to do the cross-service training, cross-service maintenance.

Maybe one should be thinking about adding a core-competence to that schoolhouse of an elite corps of instructors who are actually bargaining through some of the language.  And of course, you have the advantage of having the maintainers from the different nations there and the different pilots, which are actually informed by some cultural reality as opposed to just making it up.  Does that make sense?

McKay: It absolutely does.  And I believe the pilot portion is much more integrated than the maintainer side.  Because the core structure is broken out into modules, you can insert modules as you see fit for you service.

They can rebuild or they can build that courseware to fit a service need.  The pilots like combat integration.  USMC pilots like the fact that they fly with the Navy and will fly with the Air Force; maintainers, not so much.  You haven’t broken that paradigm at all. And breaking that paradigm will be crucial to taking advantage of what the F-35 program offers.

In short, the sustainability revolution is a core part of shaping a more capabilities at less operational cost. Where is Ben Franklin when we need him?