Congress Must Reform Military Sustainment As It Did Acquisition
The U.S. military's Achilles heel in future conflicts will not be inferior technology. Rather, it will be an antiquated, industrial-age sustainment model. The way the Pentagon is organized to conduct maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) work gives rise to endless parts shortages, large numbers of so-called "hanger queens" and fleets of aircraft, ships and vehicles with availability rates well below the minimum levels needed to meet global mission requirements.
The Pentagon’s broken sustainment model translates into fewer platforms and systems available either to be deployed to war zones or at home stations on which Service members can train. This, in turn, means reduced proficiency for individuals and units, including maintainers. The overall effect is a readiness crisis.
The readiness rates for many types of aircraft, ships and ground vehicles has declined remarkably over the past few years. While the Air Force claims that its overall readiness rate has stayed relatively constant at about 73 percent, this figure masks numerous problems. Readiness rates for the F-22, F-35, F-16 and some variants of the F-15 are well below the overall average. So too are the readiness rates for the B-1, B-2, C-5, E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft and the E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System.
The situation in the Navy is equally bad. In 2017, more than 60 percent of Navy and Marine Corps fighters were out of service. The number for Marine Corps aviation, which flies the older F/A-18 Hornet, is even worse at 74 percent. Many of these aircraft are sidelined for a year or more, awaiting parts.
No surprise, Army aviation is also suffering. In 2017, about half the aviation assets of the 101st Airborne Division were sidelined. As a consequence, the division could not mount and deploy a brigade-sized air assault, due to a lack of crews and equipment.
But the readiness problem is not restricted to aviation units. According to the Government Accountability Office, “the Navy has increased deployment lengths, shortened training periods, and reduced or deferred maintenance to meet high operational demands, which has resulted in declining ship conditions and a worsening trend in overall readiness.”
Between 2011 and 2016, about 63 percent of the ships in maintenance was taking longer than predicted to complete repairs and upgrades. While the Navy has programmed additional resources for maintenance availabilities, it is coming up against limits to the capacity of existing public and private shipyards.
Declining availability of platforms and systems has a secondary effect on readiness: fewer opportunities for training. The result, as we are now discovering, is a horrific rise in accidents. Following a six-month study, Military Times reported that “accidents involving all of the military’s manned fighter, bomber, helicopter, and cargo warplanes rose by nearly 40 percent from fiscal years 2013-2017. It’s doubled for some aircraft, like the Navy and Marine Corps’ F/A-18 Hornets and Super Hornets.”
This past summer, the Navy lost 17 Sailors in separate collisions involving the USS McCain and the USS Fitzgerald. Navy investigators later found that part of the cause for both accidents was related to ongoing Navy readiness problems including high operational tempo, lack of adequate training and deferred or delayed maintenance availabilities.
Even worse than the loss of vitally needed platforms, inadequate sustainment is killing and injuring service personnel. According to the summary of the House version of the fiscal year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, “In 2017, nearly four times as many members of the military died in training accidents as were killed in combat. In all, 21 Service members died in combat while 80 died as a result of non-combat training-related accidents. This spring alone, 25 were killed in military aviation mishaps.”
The Services are complaining about a pilot shortage and inadequate training opportunities. This was due, in part, to a lack of flying hour funding. But the largest source of the problem is too few available aircraft. The Pentagon can fully fund flying hour accounts, but if the right number of aircraft are not available, the money is wasted. One reason the Air Force is considering purchasing the OA-X Light Attack/Armed Reconnaissance aircraft is to cheaply generate opportunities to put pilots in cockpits.
In contrast, commercial providers of aircraft MRO services are able to maintain much higher availability rates than those found in the military and to complete the work required on an aircraft much more rapidly. Commercial aviation companies require aircraft availability rates in excess of 90 percent. MRO firms such as Delta Tech Ops and AAR routinely meet these targets. Moreover, they work their aircraft much harder than comparable military aircraft including those that are based on commercial derivatives.
Defenders of the current sustainment system will argue that military aircraft perform in more stressful environments, conduct more complex mission profiles and have highly sophisticated systems not present on commercial aircraft. In truth, unless deployed, most military aircraft operate in relatively benign environments, rarely conduct extremely stressing maneuvers and do not stress their mission systems. The fundamental reason that the availability rates for commercial aircraft are so much higher than for military aircraft is that commercial MRO best practices are better than those permitted by the military’s sustainment system.
Congress needs to pay as much attention to reforming the military sustainment system as it has to reforming acquisition. If anything, the need for speed is even greater in the former than it is in the latter. Reforming sustainment not only can save billions of dollars that could go to modernization, but it can also ensure that more capability in the form of available platforms and systems are in the hands of the warfighter. Oh yes, it can also help save lives today.
Daniel Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Gouré has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio here.