The Pentagon Needs to Approach Service Providers As Military ‘Auxiliaries’

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The U.S. military learned many valuable lessons from its nearly two decades of war in Southwest Asia. One of the most important of these is the central role that the private sector will play in future operations. For most of this long period of conflict, contractors outnumbered Coalition soldiers in the theaters of conflict.

Civilian contractors have a larger presence on today’s battlefields than ever before. In the early 1990s, as the U.S. military began downsizing, it started transferring many of its support functions to private sector contractors. From the provision of food, shelter and water to fuel and security, functions once performed by uniformed personnel have to a large degree been outsourced.

As part of the Department of Defense transformation, contractors also became a part of complex weapons systems support on the battlefield. In essence, contractors are now a de facto third force — a support force — integral to the conduct of modern warfare. Managing this civilian support force is a new challenge.

Overall, contractors on the battlefield have more than met their mission to support the nation and its military by supplying logistics and support services— often under harrowing and lethal conditions. In many instances, their achievements have been nothing short of miraculous. Contractors have been largely responsible for the construction and maintenance of the complex infrastructure that supports U.S. expeditionary forces. In this process, more than 600 civilian contract workers have been killed in Iraq alone.

One area where this country has a significant advantage over any putative adversary, one it is likely to retain for years to come, is in logistics and sustainment. This is particularly significant with respect to the centerpieces of U.S. defense strategy, power projection and expeditionary operations; in other words, playing away games.

Over the past several decades, even as the bulk of forward-deployed U.S. forces came home from their overseas bases, the military not only retained but improved its ability to conduct overseas operations, deploy joint forces worldwide and sustain them once deployed. No other nation on Earth has this ability.

The secret to DoD’s ability to move, supply and support modern military forces in multiple theaters on the other side of the world simultaneously rests in the support it received from private sector companies. In collaboration with defense entities such as U.S. Transportation Command, the Defense Logistics Agency and Army Materiel Command, international logistics providers such as Maersk Line Limited, Hapag-Lloyd, American President Lines, the United Parcel Service and DHL have created and sustained global supply chains that stretch almost literally from factory to foxhole.

Commercial companies do more than just move personnel and supplies to and from the war zones. Some of them operate extensive fleets of aircraft and helicopters under contract to the U.S. government. AAR Airlift Group recently was awarded the State Department’s Worldwide Aviation Support Services contract. This contract supports the global work of the Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, Office of Aviation (INL/A).

INL/A operates some 140 airplanes and helicopters and flies more than 50,000 hours annually. The activities of this office include aviation support for the eradication and interdiction of illicit drugs, training of contractor and host nation personnel, movement of embassy personnel and equipment, reconnaissance, personnel recovery, medical evacuation, security of personnel and equipment, ferrying of aircraft and aviation logistics.

U.S. Transportation Command has made awards to several private companies under the Trans-Africa Airlift Support Contract. This contract provides U.S. Africa Command and U.S. Special Operations Command–Africa with air transportation services for the conduct of airlift, cargo drops, and emergency evacuation services

U.S. firms are the world’s leaders in the provision of maintenance, repair and overhaul services (MRO) for aircraft to both commercial and government clients. Commercial airlines and private carriers require extremely high aircraft utilization rates and swift turn times at gates. Two keys to a successful global MRO business are worldwide networks of installations and suppliers, and a supply chain management system that can ensure the most efficient and effective movement stockpiling and movement of parts.

To meet these requirements, commercial aircraft MRO and supply chain management companies have revolutionized their business practices. For example, the newly-created Boeing Global Services not only boasts a worldwide network of support facilities and parts repositories but a unique array of analytic tools and supply chain management systems to ensure the most effective support of aircraft fleets anywhere around the world. United Technologies Aerospace Systems has applied a suite of digital tools to improve on its already stellar on-time repair rate of 97 percent.

Private firms such as Boeing, AAR and others already provide some MRO and supply chain management to the Department of Defense. Boeing has long provided sustainment for the C-17 fleet through a Performance-Based Logistics contract that also involves the Warner-Robins Air Logistics Center. Seeking to exploit this revolution in digital support for MRO and supply chain management activities, Lockheed Martin is working diligently to ensure that its Autonomic Logistics Information System can provide end-to-end, global support for sustainment of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The wholesale adoption of proven commercial best practices in these areas would almost certainly improve the performance of the military’s depots and air logistics centers, increase aircraft availability, lower sustainment costs and improve readiness.

It is time for the Pentagon to stop holding commercial logistics and sustainment providers at arm’s length. In the event of a major war or even a sustained regional conflict, victory could well go to the side with the best system for sustaining its forces, repairing battle damage and ensuring high levels of platform availability. In the event of war, the commercial companies that specialize in MRO activities, logistics and supply chain management will become vital auxiliaries to uniformed military forces.

Daniel Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure 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.

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