This article first appeared in Forbes on October 13, 2021, written by Admiral Patrick Walsh, USN (Ret.) and partner Dennis Santare.
Few organizations function as seamlessly as the US military’s high-performance operations teams. Well-known models include such warfighting groups as Delta Force and the SEALs, flight demonstration squadrons such as the Thunderbirds and Blue Angels, and of course, the strike fighter tactics school popularly known as TOPGUN.
What distinguishes these elite, relatively small units are long histories of unfailing adherence to time-tested internal processes that together create a sustainable formula for delivering consistent, top-drawer performance. Team members — whether operators, maintenance techs, logisticians, or outside contractors — have a clear understanding of what’s expected of them at any point in a mission and are held accountable for fulfilling those tasks according to an agreed-upon playbook. Coordination down to the smallest detail can be a matter of life and death, which makes the ability to replicate sought-after results mission after mission — often with extensive team turnover — a criterion of the job, not merely an aspiration.
With this extensive list of standout teams, why can’t the military apply this proven formulation at scale to keeping aircraft in the operating fleet fully mission-capable? We think it can — with a fundamental reorientation of its sustainment operations and establishment of more transparent lines of accountability that include setting targets and meting out consequences if they’re not met. If the military can mirror the closeness elite teams establish with aerospace companies, then there is an opportunity to unlock the same powerful private sector contribution to national security that high performance teams already realize.
Dismal record to date
Right now, the Pentagon’s record of keeping aircraft mission-ready is frustratingly low, but not because of inadequate resources, personnel, or individual heroic effort. Out of nearly 50 aircraft types in service, only three met annual mission-capable goals for most years between 2011 and 2019, according to a 2020 General Accounting Office (GAO) report. Half failed the bare-minimum standard every year.