Despite shelling out billions of dollars year after year to maintain aircraft fleets, the US Defense Department faces challenges keeping its aircraft ready to handle the plethora of combat scenarios they confront. Out of nearly 50 aircraft types representing all four branches of the military, only three met annual mission-capable goals for most of the years between 2011 and 2019, according to a 2020 report by the General Accounting Office (GAO). Over half didn’t meet their goal in any of the years in that period.
This is not good news, but it’s also not news to the Pentagon. The inability to keep aircraft mission-ready has plagued the services for years, and while not a surprise, the GAO report was a setback for Pentagon directives to reform aircraft sustainment — essentially the military version of maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO).
Officials attribute a range of factors to the overall decline in mission-capable rates — aging aircraft, unscheduled maintenance, unanticipated part replacements and repairs, supply support deficiencies, trained personnel shortages, diminishing manufacturing sources, and parts obsolescence. The challenges of maintaining operational readiness are compounded by inefficiencies in military depot operations and supply chain management.
This is contrasted by commercial aviation operations where anything less than a 98 percent ready-to-fly performance is considered subpar. There are direct economic consequences if aircraft can’t take off when needed, and an MRO provider wouldn’t stay in business very long if it consistently failed to meet customer requirements. How can the military instill that same kind of accountability in its civilian and military workforces, and incentivize them to go above and beyond — recognizing, of course, that mission-capable rates pose a greater challenge than aircraft availability?
Talking across military branches
First, the Pentagon needs to understand better how commercial operations work. While the military reviews private-sector operations sometimes, maybe it needs to bring in an operational expert from an airline or MRO provider to critique the military approach. Just as it is in any industry, all four branches need to know which best practices make a difference at suppliers, which practices produce the best results, and which practices are transferable to a military context. Unfortunately, useful lessons may be overlooked if they don’t fit neatly with a how-we-do-things mentality.
But that’s only part of the challenge. The Pentagon needs to figure out how best practices can be shared across service branches that don’t talk to each other or speak the same language when it comes to sustainment. It’s a problem that companies also bump up against — business units or departments working in silos, not sharing information across an enterprise, or producing data only meaningful to one unit.
When valuable knowledge transfer is impeded within a commercial entity, senior management often creates a cross-functional task force to address problems that can be solved collectively for the broader benefit of the enterprise. The Pentagon could consider a similar course, bringing together the necessary technical and operational expertise from all four branches and experts from the private sector. Commercial experts could be the bridge to help the services talk to each other.
Without an apparatus like a task force, each branch faces the risk of constantly reinventing the wheel to solve common problems, which leads to inefficiency and excess cost. One branch may in fact build an effective solution to a sustainment problem that could be broadly applied, but the other branches may never hear of it.
Public-private partnerships are an example of how to enable industry-military cooperation that conforms to DoD’s “50/50” compliance. Recent ones have aimed at improving depot efficiency with commercial methods and tools that can be adapted to military sustainment. Similar partnerships could be developed that focus on achieving higher mission-capable rates and reducing sustainment costs. One possible approach: Expand support roles and parts programs on weapons platforms through integrated product teams, cross-domain expertise, and non-aircraft weapons systems support capabilities.
Use more carrots
The Pentagon also needs to design more effective ways to incentivize sustainment technicians to meet deadlines and suppliers to ensure spare parts availability. This may include working closely with manufacturers to make aircraft mission readiness an element of their mandate. While the military has sought to save money by challenging the control original equipment manufacturers have over intellectual property, perhaps the motivation should be efficiency rather than cost-cutting.
Forming effective public-private partnerships can help the branches stay current on the latest commercial capabilities as well as force them to frequently evaluate their progress on readiness — or lack thereof. One collaboration that could lead to that kind of introspection involves the Air Force, Delta Tech Ops, and the Georgia Institute of Technology. Built around the C-5 sustainment enterprise, the effort is working to develop recommendations for modernizing aircraft maintenance and reliability with a team of experts in reliability engineering, maintenance operations, fleet management, software development, and predictive maintenance from all three partners.
Finally, the military might take inspiration from General Charles Q. Brown, the Chief-of-Staff for the Air Force. He has been asking whether it might make more sense to have fewer planes maintained at higher mission-capable levels than large fleets with smaller percentages of aircraft combat ready. It’s a fundamentally different way of looking at the problem, which in fact may be what’s called for.
No doubt, the military will never replicate commercial performance for a bevy of reasons. Unlike commercial airliners, military aircraft aren’t used every day and don’t require regularly scheduled maintenance. Some aircraft may not see service for months, more akin to commercial airliners placed in storage. Military aircraft are also laden with sophisticated weapons systems requiring highly skilled technicians often in short supply. Lastly, military aircraft lack the relative standardization of commercial airliners, making it challenging to maintain adequate spare parts inventories.
Solutions to the sustainment problem must address some of these differences. But working more closely with manufacturers and the supply chain and seeking their regular input may help the military see problems through a different lens.