Fixing the Military’s Aircraft Sustainment Problem
How the Pentagon can get help from the aviation industry
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Sustainment reform remains a priority for the US Department of Defense (DoD), with ongoing efforts to increase weapon-system availability and improve operational efficiency.  But more can be done to fulfill this ambition and maintain required readiness — the primary objective of weapon-platform support.  

What’s At Stake

In a nutshell, the military is behind the curve in aircraft sustainment, and it’s costing money and reducing the DoD’s readiness posture. According to a November 2020 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on military aircraft readiness, the average annual mission capable rate for most of the examined aircraft programs declined during a nine-year period since FY2011. The mission capable rate — the percentage of total time an aircraft can fly and perform its intended mission — was used to measure the readiness of these fleets. Overall, of the 50 aircraft platforms reviewed, all but three failed to meet mission readiness objectives for a majority of the nine years. Over half did not meet annual mission capable goals in any of the years.

On top of that, the cost of sustaining aircraft varied widely, suggesting that not all branches are recognizing efficiency opportunities. 

The Number of Years Between FY2011 and FY2019 Military Aircraft were Considered Mission-Capable

The Pentagon attributed a range of factors to the overall decline in mission readiness — aging aircraft, unscheduled maintenance, unanticipated part replacements and repairs, supply deficiencies, trained personnel shortages, diminishing manufacturing sources, and parts obsolescence. And the challenges of maintaining mission readiness are compounded by depot inefficiencies and supply chain issues. The DoD, however, spends billions of dollars annually sustaining aircraft to ensure mission availability. Yet, these sustainment challenges persist. 

So, it’s not surprising to see more attention from the Pentagon and the various branches on reducing sustainment costs and adopting commercial practices.  Two of the pivotal areas that need a revamp:  making sustainment effort more cost effective and increasing and ensuring spare parts availability.

More Coordination Is Possible

While not every commercial practice is readily transferable to a military context, there are many opportunities for the military to address problems using techniques employed in the private sector. There are already several projects underway. We’d like to suggest a few more strategies to address the problem.

Here are steps service providers can consider that could increase mission-capable rates while reducing sustainment costs:

  • Enable further buildout of end-of-life support capabilities for legacy aircraft programs
  • Expand support roles and parts programs on weapons platforms through integrated product teams, cross-domain expertise, and non-aircraft weapons systems support capabilities
  • Pursue value-added roles to support reform initiatives aimed at improving depot operations and sustainment efficiency
  • Seek partnerships with specialized service providers to deliver solution-based outcomes
  • Apply asset-based solutions such as software-as-a-service (SaaS) and data analytics to enhance supply chain operations, asset availability, demand planning, and spare parts management
  • Demonstrate win-win approaches to create room for the DoD to participate in joint sustainment solution development
  • Bring to the warfighter practical and scalable solutions aimed at solving specific problems, and avoid promoting remedies not firmly rooted in what the warfighter needs

Here are new approaches to engaging industry and accessing commercial capabilities the DoD can try to advance sustainment reform and improve mission readiness:

  • Adopt agile approaches to problem-solving and solution implementation — for instance, in data management, decision-making analytics, and parts forecasting solutions that use machine learning and artificial intelligence
  • Achieve practical outcomes with fewer resources and solve costly infrastructure challenges with scalable solutions for maintenance, logistics, and asset management
  • Rely on industry to manage costly support systems, especially in areas like  training infrastructure and support, and software solution development
  • Source commercially proven solutions to solve specific problems and create measurable impact
  • Seek partnerships with commercial entities to ensure alignment on continuous improvement goals and commitment to longer term actions with higher readiness impact

 

Efforts In Progress

The Pentagon is already gaining a greater awareness of operational similarities between military and commercial aviation. For example, the Naval Sustainment System (NSS) and Depot Readiness Initiative are programs that are specifically aimed at using commercial expertise to improve MRO operations. The Navy’s mission-capable rates for the F/A-18 and EA‑18G fleets are already increasing, thanks to the incorporation of commercial aviation best practices as part of the NSS within squadrons, and at intermediate and depot Fleet Readiness Centers. But for the Navy, this is only the beginning of the journey.

In response to a growing need for efficient sustainment support, service providers have sought to differentiate their value propositions.  To this end, they have approached the sustainment market with a diverse range of operating models and capabilities, illustrating that a one-size-fits-all approach to supporting the warfighter is not practical.

Some providers differentiate with low-cost delivery and software-based capabilities—offering value-added solutions enabling reliable, efficient, and cost-effective sustainment operations.  These include the Airbus “SmartForce” analytics suite that enables military operators to improve safety, boost mission availability, and reduce maintenance costs. Other service providers, such as Collins Aerospace, have created the FlexForce Depot Partnership model to implement supply chain and process improvement projects for enhancing maintenance capabilities, facilities operations, and technical expertise. Another model is bundling parts and services to provide end-of-life sustainment solutions for legacy aircraft. One example of this is Kellstrom AeroPrecision’s integrated offering for MRO, parts manufacturing, engineering, and logistics for the USAF E-8C JSTARS platform.

Public-private Partnerships

Others have established public-private partnerships to enable cooperative arrangements that conform to DoD “50/50” workshare compliance. An example is Pratt & Whitney’s partnership with the USAF Oklahoma City ALC to improve depot efficiency with process improvement methods and tools for sustaining military engines.

Finally, some players have adapted to the DoD’s goal of reducing supplier data control to achieve more balance in working with DoD customers to provide benefit from commercial practices.  For example, the adoption of PMA parts and DER repairs have improved spare part availability, reduced intellectual property control, and introduced competition to minimize product lifecycle costs and to increase supply chain efficiency.  The increased use of alternate parts and repairs, particularly for commercial derivative aircraft, has enabled cost savings on engine overhauls.

Maintaining weapon system availability and achieving established mission capable rates are paramount to DoD readiness. But more can be achieved to instill sustainment reform. To accomplish higher readiness with greater efficiency and at lower cost, the DoD and industry can do more to reevaluate what is working — and what is not — and to address the root causes of systemic readiness shortfalls, and how commercial approaches can address them effectively and affordably.