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
and Iraq , the Army’s
ability to sustain equipment without the help of contractors [has] weakened,
service leaders have long noted.” Afghanistan
Of course, the issue affects the Navy, as well.
“In a decisive action,” like early operations in
, he said, “there
was no place for contractors or civilians to be on the battlefield. It was the
soldiers’ responsibility.” Iraq
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?
(1)Defense News website, “Ditching Pre-Positioned Activity Sets, Army Now Deploying Equipment From CONUS”, Jen Judson,