by David Phinney
Friday July 12th 2024



Army Eyes Contractor Partnerships for Surge in Battlefield Repairs

From the wayback machine … Soon after invasion of Iraq, war planners oozed ebullient confidence in their abilities to work with contractors and even Iraqis to repair equipment.

April 28, 2003 — Even before armed hostilities in Iraq began to calm, Defense Department managers in charge of repairing and maintaining military equipment started gearing up for their job ahead.

Logistics professionals call it preparing for the surge. Six aircraft carrier fleets, hundreds of battle-torn tanks, thousands of Humvees and other wheeled vehicles, Air Force fighters stressed from back-to-back bombing missions, bullet-riddled helicopters – all will be in need of overhauls, repairs and possible upgrades once their role in Iraq is over.

Even much of the equipment that was not in battle is expected to have suffered from the fine desert sand or salt air of the Persian Gulf region.

Defense Department managers now are choreographing how and when that work will be done.

This involves hammering out countless details to a surge of questions: Which equipment will be brought back to the United States, and which will remain in the theater or elsewhere overseas? When will that equipment be cycled through depots and shipyards, and which will be upgraded, retired or replaced? How much contract support, staff overtime and extra temporary hiring will be needed? And, of course, how much will everything cost?

“We’ve got it down to a level of detail that will hurt your eyes,” said Gary Motsek, deputy chief of staff for support operations at Army Materiel Command in Alexandria, Va.

He has been penciling out classified strategies to piece the Army back together. His target date is May 9 for a final draft. “We’re moving at warp speed now,” he said. Planners in the other armed services are doing the same.

Most military officials and depot and shipyard managers interviewed said these facilities almost certainly will need to hire temporary help, strike new contracts to gain use of private-sector facilities and manpower, and pay more overtime to accommodate the work they know is coming their way. They also expect the Defense Department to submit a supplemental budget request to Congress for fiscal 2004 to cover these costs.

Public-Private Partnerships

Many Defense officials say the surge of work to be done after the military returns will require depots and shipyards to rely more heavily on private contractors for manpower, expertise and technology. And they see now an opportunity to develop stronger partnerships between military depots and shipyards and defense contractors.

“Public-private partnerships are a key enabler to improve our maintenance capability,” said a senior official with the Navy, which has been working to leverage partnerships with the private sector to service aircraft carriers and submarines, and meet a number of other needs.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld strongly backs such partnerships, and he has been urging Congress to act swiftly in expanding the role of contractors working at depots to help increase efficiency with just-in-time maintenance.

Currently, public-private partnerships perform about 2 percent of the $19 billion worth of work at depots, according to the General Accounting Office in a recent report, “Public-Private Partnerships Have Increased, But Long-Term Growth and Results Are Uncertain.”

To expand these partnerships, Defense may need to overcome strenuous resistance in Congress. Many lawmakers, protective of depot jobs in their districts, have voiced opposition to the move. They predict that further incursions by the private sector into the lucrative depot business may undermine national security, said Lanier Swann, spokeswoman for the co-chairman of the House Depot Caucus, Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C.

“The congressman really believes that we can’t rely on private contractors such as General Electric and Lockheed,” she said.

Navy Faces Biggest Challenge

Whatever the outcome, the Navy appears to be facing the biggest crunch of all the services. While the land force during the 1991 Desert Storm was twice the number of those sent to the Persian Gulf for this campaign, the Navy deployed numbers similar to what it did then. Roughly 150 warships were on active operations at the height of Operation Iraqi Freedom. They are now beginning to return for full maintenance routines.

The Harry S. Truman battle group, including one carrier, nine ships and two submarines, is expected to return at the end of May from its wartime station in the Mediterranean where it launched fighters to Iraq. Plans for several other carrier groups based in San Diego may soon be announced.

Officially, the Navy is not saying how it plans to handle the shipyard maintenance of returning ships. “We are currently working with the operational commanders to achieve an effective, balanced solution to enable force readiness and continued forward presence,” said Lt. Scott McIlnay, a spokesman for the Atlantic Fleet in Norfolk, Va.

For some surveying the daunting task ahead to refurbish the force, it all adds up to civilian Defense workers giving far more than a 100 percent effort in the months ahead.

“It’s going to hit all the shipyards at the same time,” said John Priolo, a former assistant nuclear engineering manager, and now training manager at Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility, Hawaii. Priolo said the shipyard will handle whatever work comes its way, but added it may require significant overtime of its workers. “It’s another reason why public shipyards are so important.”

Air Force’s Never-Ending ‘Surge’

The Air Force has adopted new management strategies for improving how its depots do business. That, and the increased tempo of military operations in recent years, has burnished its abilities to handle whatever the Pentagon throws at them, Air Force depot officials say.

“For all intents and purposes, we’ve been at some level of surge since Desert Storm in 1991,” said George Falldine, director of plans and programs for the Warner Robins Air Logistics Center. The largest industrial complex in Georgia, the Air Force center employs more than 19,000 workers, including nearly 12,000 civilians.

Falldine has been with Warner Robins for nearly 30 years. In part, he credits employees for being on their toes because of the seemingly unstopping needs to service planes flying over Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, and 12 years of constant work in the no-fly zones over Iraq. But depot managers also have adopted what is known as lean management – an approach adopted from manufacturing in the private sector.

Falldine said the notion that military maintenance surges during wartime and ebbs during peace is “old thinking.” The shift started during Operation Desert Storm and continues under Rumsfeld, he said. “We are basically thinking of levels of continual conflict as opposed to the war transition,” he said.

In recent years, managers at Robins took a top-to-bottom review of their depot. They then re-engineered operations by cutting out the wait between maintenance steps when equipment is moved from site to site around the center. “To the extent we could squeeze out wait time, we increased efficiency,” Falldine said.

Managers also worked to improve routine work orders by asking staff for the best way to do things after realizing that 10 mechanics may know how to fix a black box but everyone may be doing it in 10 different ways. Managers took the best ideas and made them the standard for everyone.

“Don’t think so much of targets you want destroyed, think in terms of the effect you want to achieve,” Falldine advises. “In logistics, you want flexibility. This is war. The plan must be flexible because it will change.”

Army’s Efficiency Showcase

Corpus Christi Army Depot, Texas, last fall began efforts to adopt the lean management approach, and the facility is now a showcase for efficiency throughout the military, said Col. Jim Budney, commander of the depot.

With more than 2,800 civilians, a handful of military personnel and 175 contract employees working in partnership with the depot, the Texas maintenance center services all of the Army’s aircraft as well as a large share of rotary-wing aircraft from other military branches.

Waits between maintenance steps has been dramatically reduced, Budney said. Routine overhauls that once required helicopters to be towed 30 separate times over a course of five miles have been cut to eight tows and less than one mile. With each tow lasting an hour and needing six people, the time saved is significant, he said.

The innovation Budney really likes is the use of flags on equipment showing where the problems are and nearby chalk boards that explain what repairs remain.

“The workers really love it,” he said.

Still, with every aircraft coming back from the war expected to go through what the Army calls recapitalization maintenance, and 13 crash-damaged helicopters to restore, Budney anticipates a need for hiring 200 additional temporary employees.

Opportunity for Transformation

The age-old challenge of post-war rebuilding comes at a time when the military is rethinking what shape the armed services should be taking in the future. Some view the coming surge as an opportunity to advance Rumsfeld’s goal to transform the nation’s military into a more technologically driven and versatile fighting force through the upgrading, retirement and repositioning of equipment.

It will be a chance to review where the military will be positioned around the globe in the event of future conflicts. The military may reduce its footprint in Europe and expand its presence in Kuwait and Qatar, for example.

There also is talk about performing some weapons maintenance and overhaul work at existing or yet-to-be-built facilities in the Persian Gulf region.

“The logic is to do everything we can in theater,” Motsek said. “Labor rates are very low.”

Equipment other than combat gear could be tagged for resale to the Iraqi interim government and neighboring allies.

“These are things they’ve done in the past and will be doing again,” said Col. Tom Sweeney, logistics professor with the Army War College. Older equipment with limited life spans is especially expensive to bring home and repair, he said. “With plenty of Iraqis looking for work, it would be a shot in the arm for their economy.”