Services Trying to Pump New Life Into Aging Gear

By Harold Kennedy

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, S.C.

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 decades.

"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., for repairs.

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 (BRAC) process.

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 said.

"Our maintainers frequently are compared to their private-sector counterparts," Kallock noted. But there are important differences, he said.

"For example, most Marine Corps and Army maintainers are also riflemen." If necessary, he said, they can pick up a weapon and fight.

Even without combat, uniformed maintenance personnel work under harsh conditions, compared to those in the private sector, Kallock said.

"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 Arabian desert."

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.

Unskilled Labor
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 Staff.

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 were:

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, Zettler said.

"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 out."

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, D.C.–suggests:

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, Md.

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 partnerships.

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 in 1997."

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," he asserted.

"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.

Topics: Defense Department, Materiel, Procurement

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