SAN DIEGO — When Gunnery Sgt. Gilberto Yanez was put in charge of generator maintenance at Camp Fallujah in Iraq, he never anticipated the problems he would have purchasing generators from local vendors.
Merchants would often disguise systems by repainting and selling them as new. Generators never came with warranties. And manuals would be written in foreign languages, if manuals were included at all.
Adding to the predicament was price gouging, lack of repair parts and knowledgeable technicians, Yanez recounted during a National Defense Industrial Association conference.
Although the local vendors were responsible for many of these complications, similar difficulties are experienced throughout U.S. military bases in Iraq.
“Most power problems encountered in theater are our fault, not because of the operational scenario,” said Ken Zemach, director of business development at Lion Cells, who worked with the Army in Iraq. Troubles in supplying energy can be blamed on technology only about 20 percent of time. The other 80 percent are caused by logistics, Zemach told National Defense.
Transporting materials, repair, training and support can all be problematic, he said.
For Yanez, logistics troubles abounded at Camp Fallujah. Flaws with locally purchased generators cost Marines time and money. When the generator came without a manual, many of Yanez’s fellow Marines had to wing it.
“Some of the Marines had experience [with generators] that could trouble shoot or diagnose … otherwise they just had to figure it out.”
Bases demand a large amount of power, but there are not enough tactical generators available, said Master Sgt. Rowan Dickson, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force headquarters group engineer chief. Dickson lamented that vendors can’t deliver equipment in the required time. There are too many different engines and generators, which impedes repair and parts replacement.
Like Yanez, Dickson also pointed to complications with buying generators from local vendors in Iraq. He showed conference attendees a photo of a generator that had been painted blue. He had scratched the surface to discover that it had been used and repainted.
One way to better manage the procurement of generators is to help simplify the purchase process, and shorten delivery time, Dickson said. This can be done though military contracts that encourage standardized power grids and decrease maintenance by limiting the types of generators that are accepted, he explained. Right now, four companies are under contract — Cummins Power Generation, Caterpillar Inc., FG Wilson Engineering Ltd. and Marapco, Dickson said.
Currently, generators are still being bought locally, Yanez said, but changes are underway. “There are new steps to eliminate problem generators like checking certain qualities, certain standards … when we left [in February 2007], we made recommendations for improvements,” he said.
At Camp Fallujah, Yanez said, generator maintenance also caused headaches.
In 2003, the firm Kellogg, Brown and Root was contracted to maintain generators. Yet KBR’s team in Iraq was “understaffed and lacked required parts to do repairs,” Yanez said.
The Marines on base “inherited shortfalls” created by KBR, which drove up costs and delays. At one point, Marines on duty couldn’t find the contractors to do routine tasks. “We would go to their office and it would be empty because they were at lunch at 10 in the morning,” Yanez said.
The Army Corps of Engineers subsequently awarded a contract in 2004 to a Turkish company, called EMTA, to take over commercial generator maintenance.
After EMTA was hired, base officials decided to implement a new power grid on base, making the switch to centralized power. The grid was set up to reduce the number of generator sites and to cut down on parts, labor and manpower, Yanez explained.
At that time, nine different 1.2 megawatt generators powered 108 power stations around the base. They were maintained by KBR. After EMTA received its contract, KBR took on a secondary role at the base, providing back-up power and generator support.
The centralized grid was set up with transformers, similar to what is done in the United States. “The way we set up the site, we had generators that could be synchronized at the same time and it was all controlled by one station,” Yanez said. The grid fed all the buildings, including power hungry air conditioning systems.
In addition to more efficient power generation, grids ensure constant operation of mission-critical equipment, said Paul Richard, Defense Department project manager for mobile electric power.
When the Marine Corps took over operations from the Army at Camp Fallujah in 2006, it awarded a second contract to EMTA. The company maintained generators and the distribution system and provided all materials, Yanez said.
Batteries also have caused “logistics nightmares,” Zemach said. The overarching problem is a lack of standardization. Many of the weapons systems and tactical devices used by soldiers use proprietary batteries, Zemach explained. One of the electronic jamming devices that soldiers employ to disable bombs uses proprietary lithium ion batteries, rather than the lithium ion rechargeable BB-2590s, which are standard military batteries. When the devices require new batteries, they must be ordered from the manufacturer. In one particular case, an order was lost for more than two months, leaving the equipment unusable, Zemach said. “Contractors think they’re doing the right thing because they make their proprietary batteries to be exactly what will work with their equipment, but what they don’t understand is, in the end they make the situation worse,” he said.
One unit in Baghdad encountered similar obstacles with proprietary batteries for robots. Because the battery wasn’t standard, the unit had no idea how to fix it, Zemach said.
Standard batteries often provide the best — and most cost effective — approach, he argued. Zemach and his colleagues were trying to come up with a power source for the long-range advance scout surveillance system. They came up with two possible non-standard choices: A commercial-off-the-shelf system or a one built by a defense contractor. The COTS option would have cost $2,700 with a one-month lead time and the defense contractor would have charged $250,000 with a nine to 12 month lead time, he said. In the end, the best option was a standard 24-volt power supply. The standard system saved the Army at least nine months of research, more than $250,000 for development and more than $800,000 in power supply costs, Zemach said.
“People say, ‘Oh, we have a power problem because power is hard to get,’ but 80 percent of power problems in theater are human problems … because we don’t have standardization, we are creating a nightmare with power,” he said.
The standardization issues extend to other basic parts of a power system such as connectors and cables, which are not interchangeable from one system to the other. Zemach suggested that vendors make cables with standard connectors. “So when your customer loses your cable, they can grab the one that’s ubiquitous with your competitor’s products and use it. And your competitor isn’t going to sue you for using that cable,” he said.
Vendors, he added, “don’t know the military rules. Sometimes they just don’t understand the right thing to do.”
The military services should better communicate their battery requirements to industry, he said. “I think the military needs to provide clear information on some web site or say, ‘here’s the contact and we’ll give you the [battery] information,’” he suggested. “The military needs to help vendors. Otherwise I just throw my arms up and say ‘forget it, I’m going to build my own battery.’”
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