Monday, April 17, 2017

Contractor Support

The military has been relying more and more on contractor support as systems have become more technologically advanced and complex.  On the plus side, contractor support provides the technical expertise that the military doesn’t have and doesn’t seem to want to train for.  Contractors also represent a limited investment for the military.  They can be used as needed and then terminated to save money.  On the minus side, contractor support breeds a dependency that weakens the military’s ability to sustain their own equipment.  Most importantly, the contractors will not be present during combat.

A Defense News website article touches on this issue as it affects the Army. 

“Because of the rapid fielding of an enormous amount of equipment during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army’s ability to sustain equipment without the help of contractors [has] weakened, service leaders have long noted.”

Of course, the issue affects the Navy, as well.

“In a decisive action,” like early operations in Iraq, he said, “there was no place for contractors or civilians to be on the battlefield. It was the soldiers’ responsibility.”

This statement recognizes the reality that contractors won’t be available, at least not near the front lines, to provide support.  If we don’t learn how to provide our own support, we’re going to wind up fighting with degraded and unrepairable weapons and systems.

Well, fine, you say, when war comes we’ll train our own people to take over the support.  Unfortunately, the level of technical expertise required to support modern systems is far beyond the ability to quickly generate competent technicians by running them through a quick training course.  It now requires years of study to learn the complex electronics, physics, engineering, and software that go into a typical modern system.  Worse, today’s systems require a combination of many skills.  For example, an AESA radar system requires knowledge of particle and wave physics, advanced electronics, software programming, materials engineering, etc. to be able to diagnose and support the system.  You’re not going to send a kid out of high school to a six week training course and expect him to be a master of the system.  The contractors that support the various systems are often PhD level scientists and even the low level contractor technicians are dedicated system specialists who have spent years working with the system and spend the entire time doing nothing but working with the system.  The military simply can’t match that kind of expertise and dedication with average soldiers.

An interesting case study is the Navy’s Aegis radar system.  When the system was first introduced to the fleet the systems received top level contractor support and the systems functioned at peak performance.  As time went on and the system became well established, the Navy reduced the level of contractor support and slowly, over time, Aegis became degraded across the fleet.  The situation got to the point where the Navy had to commission one of their infamous Admiral-chaired oversight panels in an attempt to correct the systemic degradation.  For those interested, Aegis degradation is described in the 2010 Fleet Review Panel of Surface Force Readiness (the famous Balisle Report), p.43.

This raises an interesting question that I’ve brought up repeatedly.  Is it better to have an immensely complex but theoretically highly capable system that can’t be maintained or repaired easily, usually operates degraded, and is overly sensitive to blast effects or is it better to have a lesser system that is easily maintained, easily repaired in the field, and operates at max performance?  In other words, is it better to sacrifice some performance for the sake of reliability and maintainability? 

Consider the F-22/F-35 availability.  The fleets seem to run around 50% availability.  Is it better to have exquisite aircraft that are only 50% available – and in war that figure will sharply decrease – or to have previous generation aircraft that are 90% available?  Highly capable but stuck on the ground or less capable but in the air and fighting?

I think a pretty good case can be made for less capable equipment that is more reliable.  That doesn’t mean you abandon all technological advances but it does mean that you should maintain a healthy proportion of “lesser” capabilities that can be maintained without contractor support.  For example, don’t throw those A-10’s away.  The F-35 that you think is going to do your close air support just isn’t going to be available when you need it.

The other obvious lesson, here, is that if the military is going to buy technologically advanced systems, they must also “buy” the in-house technical support that is required, meaning, they must commit to providing sufficiently trained military technician, spare parts, manuals, logistics support, etc. rather than rely on contractor support.  Of course, this means that the true cost of fielding and operating a new system extends well beyond the purchase price.  If that overall support cost is too great for the budget to bear, perhaps we need to rethink the degree of technology that we want?



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(1)Defense News website, “Ditching Pre-Positioned Activity Sets, Army Now Deploying Equipment From CONUS”, Jen Judson, 13-Mar-2017,


8 comments:

  1. In a similar vein the Navy does not have the manpower and technical expertise to perform post shakedown availability (PSA) work with any required repairs to be covered by build shipyards personnel under warranty. Instead Navy has just contracted BAE Systems San Diego Ship Repair for $19.4 M / $50.9 M max. for Navy’s two new ABs to perform the maintenance and eventual repairs and alterations found necessary following the ships’ shakedown cruises.

    The two destroyers, John Finn (DDG 113) was built by HII and is scheduled to be commissioned on July 15 at Pearl Harbor and the Rafael Peralta (DDG 115) was built by BIW and was delivered to the navy February 3, 2017 and will be commissioned in San Diego on July 29, 2017. Both ships are the new Flight IIAs with the Aegis baseline 9/ IAMD capability, with the BMD 5.0 CU and naval integrated fire control-counter air (NIFC-CA). Stated PSA takes ~ 10-16 weeks though contract only expected to be completed by May 2018.

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  2. I think that it is better to have that ability in house.

    In the long run, having something like BuShips or your own internal maintenance teams is extremely important. If contractors cannot be assured during combat, then that is a fatal flaw of any weapons system because it will only be viable against second rate opponents where the contractors are not under fire.

    It will mean investing in military personnel, sending them to universities to study for years, and then investing them over many years; indeed many decades. I don't think this is as crazy as it seems. It costs a lot of money to train a fighter pilot already for example. It's well worth the investment.

    In the case of Aegis, the USN clearly needed to get naval personnel as proficient as the contractors were. That probably would have involved a far more in depth training program than was provided and a lot more investment in very specialized education.

    I agree though that a great deal of equipment is too sophisticated. It's one of the reasons why I called for simpler aircraft, electronics wise.

    Keep in mind, a fighter jet almost as competitive as most other jets can be made to work with conscripts after 10 weeks of training. That's a "good enough" situation and preferable to having an smaller fleet of very complex jets grounded. It's better to have the larger fleet of cheaper aircraft in the air.

    Murphy's Law - the complex equipment will die when you need it the most urgently. That's a hard lesson that the US needs to learn.

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  3. CNO you are commenting on the latest fallacy in our Government, which is to believe that private industry can do things cheaper and better or as well as Government (in this case service personnel).

    It should be obvious to all by now that outsourcing anything that takes dedication, an ounce of sacrifice, and belief in anything other than the bottom line does not work.

    Read Dina Raso's book: "Betraying Our Troops: The Destructive Results of Privatizing War" to see just how well things work when contracted out.

    Also if the technical skills are so valuable how do you think a company keeps the people for a song and a dance?

    Having been a tech (that went on to get a Commission) I believe you are better off having people serve in the line organizations first for 4 years, see if they like the service, and then offer them the tech schools with a contract for longer term service to get the payback. Having a 22 yr old go to a 2yr tech school with a 6 year payback after that puts them at 12 years in. You are probably gonna keep them at that point.

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    1. "CNO you are commenting on the latest fallacy in our Government, which is to believe that private industry can do things cheaper and better or as well as Government "

      Huh??? I'm not quite sure what you're saying but I'll add a bit of extra commentary to the post. Yes, private industry can do anything better and cheaper than the govt. Industry specializes which makes them better and the profit motive ensures that they will perform cheaper. That said, the one thing that private industry can't do is wage war. Thus, the use of contractors in support of the military must be done with extreme care so as to avoid dependency on contractors who, by law, cannot be in combat.

      Not sure if that's what you were saying or not?

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    2. "CNO you are commenting on the latest fallacy in our Government, which is to believe that private industry can do things cheaper and better or as well as Government "

      There is alot to that statement; I think you are being a bit too broad.

      I think that from a high level, private industry does do most things cheaper and more efficiently; they are profit and goal focused. The US government likely would do a crap job of making cars or phones. We've seen the mess that communist countries could do with manufacturing consumer goods.

      But there are alot of things that can affect whether cost and efficiency are the decision point. I remember Alan Shepherd saying that one of his thoughts going into Freedom 7 was that everything was made by the lowest cost bidder.

      Lowest cost and highest efficiency don't always rule the roost in what we want. If you have a special needs child and you have the means you may well want the tutor who lives across town with 20 years of experience and an excellent history with your childs condition; rather than the young kid out of college with a certificate who you could likely get much cheaper and you don't have to drive to go see her.

      Similarly, no private company was going to fund the moon shot or maybe the interstate system. And profit motive can backfire in an area where a business has a monopoly unless there is strict regulation. They'll expand profit margins by cutting quality because why not?

      In the US I think we had a sweet spot for awhile: Rapidly advancing technology, a large defense budget, and enough contractors to keep competition real.

      Now, the competition is nearly gone. And we've been so blinded by the technological success we've had in our recent wars that we've forgotten what it takes to really prosecute a war. We go for Star Wars and remember the gulf war and forget that WWII was often successfully prosecuted even with the US often times just approaching being at a technological peer level with our enemies. We relied on superior logistics and robust technology.

      The Panther was better than the Sherman, no question. One on one the Panther wins almost every time. But the Sherman was always fueled, armed, and ready; the Panther had a high failure rate justin its final drive ratio. Many wouldn't be ready for combat when delivered, more would have to be abandoned in place because they couldn't move them and couldn't easily pull them out under combat.

      CNO is right, if I read him correctly. We're there with Aegis. Its a fantastic weapons system*

      * when it's exquisitely maintained

      We have to make a choice. I'd rather we backed off a bit on the whizbang and went more for a balance of robust and technologically advanced. I'm not sold on the 'Uber Boyd' fighter, but I'm sure listening when they talk cheap price, cheap maintenance, and high sortie rates. There has to be an 80% solution in there somewhere.

      As an aside, if we go for more of a balance, maybe we can bring in some more contractors. If we bring in more contractors to compete, maybe we can start leveraging the efficiency of the private sector again....

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  4. The reason why government does not do things efficiently is because government is a monopoly. Normally private businesses have to compete with each other which keep them efficient. In the case of nuclear aircraft carrier construction there is a monopoly as only Newport News Shipyard is equipped to do it and start up capital required prohibits new players from competing. Now let's get back on topic. Maintaining, training, and using the military is a function of the government as spelled out in the Constitution. Maybe congress should mandate that along with new systems sold to the armed forces, the contractor must also provide training. This being dependent on contractors for basic maintenance is disturbing.

    MM-13B

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    1. I don't know if the level of complexity that's there now can be maintained unless we start making careerists out of the guys who are doing the maintaining.

      As to the government our current inefficiency in defense is also hindered by the government/military/contractor relationship.

      Lets pretend the government could re-open the JSF program for competition.

      Suppose Northrop Grummon self funded two planes, an attack and an air superiority plane.

      Lets also suppose that they had reasonable low RCS; compatibility with our current weapons, high sortie rates, high readiness rates, and even won a flyoff vs. the F-35. Finally, they can be bought, flyway cost, of $30 and $60 million, respectively.

      BUT, the new planes are only built in 10 states, including all subcontractors.

      The F-35 and Lockheed will win the contract.

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  5. Great point! Making an aircraft like the F-35 in 48 if the 50 States guarantees the contract will be awarded because it becomes a jobs program, but also makes it very likely to be way overpriced

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