As the nation’s military weaponry and other equipment grow
increasingly older, the armed services are struggling to find better
ways to keep those systems running as long as possible.
"The Department of Defense is facing significant challenges,"
Roger Kallock, who was deputy undersecretary of defense for logistics
and materiel readiness at the time, told the 4th Annual Defense
Department’s Maintenance Symposium and Exhibition in Charleston,
U.S. combat forces, he noted, include "platforms [that are]
more than 30 years old and ... programmed to remain in active service
as much as 40 additional years–70-year-old platforms!"
The Air Force, for example, has announced its intention to retain
the B-52 bomber, which has been flying since 1954, for four more
"You know, it was suggested, in jest, that the theme for this
conference might be, ‘It really is your grandfather’s
B-52,’" said Kallock. "There’s a lot of truth
in that bit of humor. It illustrates the challenges our maintainers
are up against."
Military maintenance challenges dwarf those in the private sector,
Kallock told the conference, which was sponsored by the National
Defense Industrial Association. The largest commercial airline has
about 600 aircraft, of relatively few types. By way of comparison,
he said, the Defense Department has:
The work of maintaining, repairing and rebuilding all of this gear
costs more than $40 billion per year, Kallock said.
Small and medium-size jobs are performed at the field level–in
the units around the world where the equipment is used. Major repairs,
overhauls or complete rebuilding are done at depots, shipyards and
logistics centers run by each of the services.
Some jobs, however, are too big even for the services’ largest
facilities. When the USS Cole, an Arleigh Burke-class or Aegis guided
missile destroyer, was damaged grievously last year by a terrorist
attack in Yemen, it was brought back not to a Navy shipyard, but
to the Litton Ingalls Shipbuilding facility in Pascagoula, Miss.,
The work will cost an estimated $240 million–about two thirds
of the cost of a new ship–and take up to a year to complete.
It could have been done at the Navy’s shipyard in Norfolk,
Va., the Cole’s home port, but the service decided that it
was best to have it done by workers experienced in building this
kind of ship. Ingalls built the Cole.
Some of the service-owned shipyards and depots date back to the
nation’s early history. Most were built during World War II
or the Cold War. Since the end of the Cold War, however, they have
been downsized significantly, as part of the base-realignment-and-closure
In the past decade, a total of 19 such facilities have closed or
are in the process of doing so, according to a report from the Office
of the Secretary of Defense to the armed services committees. "These
actions will leave 19 major (i.e., greater than 400 employees) maintenance
depots," said the report.
"Employment of federal government civilians in Defense Department
depots is down nearly 59 percent since fiscal year 1987 (from a
high of 156,000 in 1987 to the currently level of approximately
63,738)," according to the report.
The military services also are having trouble recruiting and retaining
uniformed maintenance personnel. Numbers of uniformed technicians
have dropped below 600,000–16 percent fewer than in 1994,
said Kallock. They are also older and more diverse, he said.
"The average active-duty maintainer’s age has increased
by two years over the past six years–from 26 to 28 years old,"
Kallock said. Younger officers in the maintenance field now include
a higher concentration of females and minorities than in 1994, he
"Our maintainers frequently are compared to their private-sector
counterparts," Kallock noted. But there are important differences,
"For example, most Marine Corps and Army maintainers are also
riflemen." If necessary, he said, they can pick up a weapon
Even without combat, uniformed maintenance personnel work under
harsh conditions, compared to those in the private sector, Kallock
"All too often," he noted, "the maintainer labors
anonymously, in extremely difficult and dangerous environments–on
a flight deck in the North Atlantic, in the muck and snow of Bosnia
and Korea, or in the oven-like heat of an air base in the Saudi
Frequently, their missions require them to work at breakneck speeds
for long hours. "This is not a glamorous calling," Kallock
said. "This is grit, grease and perseverance–and accomplishment.
"It is also a function that is absolutely critical to our
nation’s very survival for, without them, our military’s
ability to support our national security objectives would grind
rapidly to a halt."
Defense officials are concerned about the flight of maintenance
personnel from the military. During the past decade, for example,
the Navy lost 52 percent of its aircraft mechanics. The Air Force
now has nearly three quarters of all aircraft mechanics in the military
services, but it too has lost thousands of them in recent years.
One reason that the services, the Defense Department and the commercial
airline industry are having such trouble attracting and keeping
maintenance people is that the jobs have a poor public image, according
to Jay Hiles, deputy director of flight safety for the International
Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.
Mechanics are labeled incorrectly as unskilled labor, Hiles said.
They are "perceived as slow, unclean, dumb, lumbering, uneducated
people," he added. The term "grease monkey," he noted,
is in Webster’s dictionary, and it means "mechanic."
The reality is quite different, Hiles said. "Aircraft mechanics
need to know how to be plumbers, electricians, avionics experts,
metallurgists, welders, heavy-equipment operators, technical writers,
proofreaders, meteorologists, troubleshooters, interior decorators
and heating, venting and air conditioning experts.
"Not only do mechanics need to be experts in multiple tasks,
they have to be able to perform them on multiple types of aircraft
and in various environments–all without making an error,"
said Hiles. "Who in this room can commit an error while doing
your job and kill 150 people?"
National leaders, in recent years, have been trying to make all
military jobs–including those in the maintenance sector–more
attractive. Recent months have seen Congress enact pay raises, retirement
reforms, increased housing allowances and improved health care for
military personnel, plus boosted educational benefits for veterans.
Military services are revising their day-to-day operations to lessen
unnecessary stresses on personnel and their families.
The Pentagon also is making a greater effort to recognize the contributions
of maintenance personnel to national security.
At the maintenance symposium in Charleston, the 2000 Secretary
of Defense Maintenance Awards, for example, were presented to units
singled out for their roles in the 1999 NATO air campaign against
Yugoslavia and the subsequent peacekeeping operation in Kosovo.
The annual awards "recognize outstanding achievements in military
equipment and weapon-system maintenance," according to Army
Lt. Gen. John M. McDuffie, director for logistics (J4) on the Joint
Winner of the most prestigious award–the Phoenix Trophy–was
the Air Force’s 555th Fighter Squadron. Also called the "Triple
Nickel," the 555th–based in Aviano, Italy–performed
many of the air-combat missions in that operations. Other winners
As equipment ages and maintenance forces dwindle, the Pentagon
is looking for innovative solutions. The Air Force, for example,
is conducting a joint study with the Navy and Marines on sharing
maintenance and training facilities for the Joint Strike Fighter,
now being developed for use by all three services.
Lt. Gen. Michael Zettler, Air Force deputy chief of staff for installations
and logistics, told the Charleston conference that the study is
expected to last about two years and provide the services with recommended
sites for facilities. Plans are to have the facilities built by
fiscal year 2007, before the first JSFs are delivered to the Marines,
"We envision–initially at least–that we probably
will have some type of single-location operation," he explained.
"The degree of integration of that location has to be worked
Sharing one facility for the three services will be a challenge,
Zettler said. "You have to recognize the vast difference in
the way we do business. That is both in our operational community
and in our maintenance and support community.
"Certainly, we can envision some of the support in our back
shop to be shared," Zettler said, "but the Navy’s
plane captains are different from our crew chiefs, who are different
from the Marines’ riflemen who take care of their airplanes."
Because of such differences, Zettler said that joint maintenance
operations should not be foisted too quickly upon the services.
Two air-logistics centers–about 40 percent of the Air Force’s
major maintenance facilities–were closed during BRAC rounds
in the 1990s. As a result, the remaining Air Force depots are operating
at or near capacity, he said.
Predicting an increasing reliance upon civilian personnel–including
both federal employees and contractors–a recent study by the
Navy recommended that the service seek legislation reforming the
rules that govern the ways that the Pentagon manages civilian workers.
The study–done by the Center for Human Resource Management
at the National Academy of Public Administration, based in Washington,
Defense contractors are using technology to help ease the Pentagon’s
maintenance woes, according to Michael F. Camardo, executive vice
president of Lockheed Martin Corporation, headquartered in Bethesda,
As an example, he cited Exostar SM, "an open Internet-trading
exchange for suppliers and buyers" founded in 2000 by Lockheed;
the Boeing Company, headquartered in Seattle; Raytheon Company,
of Arlington, Va., and BAE Systems, from the United Kingdom. Exostar,
based in Reston, Va., seeks to provide "a complete set of supply-chain
and product-development services" for the entire $400 billion
aerospace and defense industries, Camardo said.
Sandia National Laboratories, in New Mexico, and the Aging Aircraft
Program Office at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, in Ohio, are
both developing ways to spot potential structural problems and corrosion
in an airframe without disassembling the aircraft, Camardo said.
"These techniques have saved thousands of hours–and millions
of dollars–over the years," he added.
The General Electric Company is using applied technology developed
from mammography research to perform remote diagnostics on aircraft
engines and other systems.
Also, Camardo noted, industry and government are founding public-private
New Identity for Kelly
For example, he said, when Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio,
closed down–as part of a 1995 BRAC–Lockheed Martin teamed
with the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center to provide maintenance,
repair and overhaul services for aircraft engines in the abandoned
San Antonio Air Logistics Center at Kelly.
Boeing also has opened an aircraft support center at Kelly, providing
"short-cycle-time maintenance and modification" for large
aircraft, including C-17s, KC-10s, KC-135s and DC-10s, officials
said. Boeing has similar facilities at Wichita, Kan.; Shreveport,
La., and Mesa, Ariz.
"Two outstanding examples of this progress are the Federal
Acquisition Streamlining and Clinger-Cohen Acts, which Congress
passed in the mid-1990s," Camardo said. "These acts significantly
reduced the barriers to using commercial-like procurements to acquire
commercial products, and they laid the foundation for the Defense
Reform Initiative (DRI), upon which the Defense Department embarked
DRI has "played a key role in helping the Defense Department
improve its acquisition practices and begin using information technology
and commercial best practices to develop integrated supply chains,"
Camardo said. "As a result, the average time required to provide
spare parts through the logistics system has been cut in half."
More, however, needs to be done, said Camardo. "Government
needs to focus on deciding what jobs to do, and let industry figure
out how to get them done," he said.
A "real constraint to productivity," Camardo said, is
"the 50-50 rule" established by federal law. This rule
"requires that no more than 50 percent of the funding for depot
maintenance be used for contracting to industry," Camardo explained.
The rule is intended to ensure that the depots get enough work
to stay in business, so that they will be available in national
crises, Camardo said. "It is also intended to preserve jobs
in the congressional districts where the depots are located,"
"But the unintended effect of 50-50 is to risk decreasing
readiness by distracting the military from its primary, war-fighting
mission and by limiting the amount of maintenance that can be performed
more effectively and efficiently by industry," Camardo said.
"This is particularly true for the Air Force, as a consequence
of the high level of its operations in Bosnia, Kosovo, and northern
and southern Iraq."
Camardo outlined both short-term and long-term solutions. The short-term
remedy, he said, is to count all work performed at a former government
facility–such as Kelly–as public, no matter whether
it was done by federal workers or contractors.
Over the long-term, he said, the Defense Department must determine
the core functions that it needs to be able to perform on its own
and not contract those out. "Once we do this," Camardo
said, "there will be no need to artificially restrict funding,
as in the 50-50 rule, to preserve organic capability."
Maintenance challenges involve new equipment, as well as old. In
mid-December, the Marine Corps suspended flights of its new MV-22
Osprey tiltrotor aircraft after one crashed in North Carolina, killing
all four Marines on board. It was the MV-22’s second incident
this year. In April, one went down in Arizona, killing 19 Marines.
The most recent crash is still under investigation. The Marines
concluded that the April accident was caused by pilot error, not
design or maintenance factors.
Also in December, the Army grounded its entire fleet of 742 AH64
Apache helicopters–including those in Kosovo and Bosnia. The
Army took the step "as a precautionary measure," officials
said, following the discovery of a faulty tail rotor swashplate
assembly. By January, most of the Apaches had been inspected and
returned to full flight status.
Two battalions of the tank-killing Apaches were deployed to the
Balkans during NATO’s 1999 air campaign against Yugoslavia.
But two of the helicopters crashed during training missions in Albania,
and the units never saw combat.