Masters of Surge

April 1, 2003
Air Force depots are not normally places you’d expect to hear talk about battle plans. Usually, the repair centers reverberate with the sounds of metal on metal, as airframes are pulled apart for upgrades, or with the jargon of technicians huddled around a workbench discussing why an aircraft’s radar system is not working. The 9/11 terrorist attacks changed that.

As the US engaged in the war on terror, USAF’s three depots dusted off contingency plans seldom used during the Cold War or the 1991 Gulf War.

They became “engaged, responsive, and forward thinking,” said the Air Force’s top warfighter in Europe, Gen. Gregory S. Martin, commander of US Air Forces in Europe, on the depots’ support for Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

“ First they assured major commands that support to the warfighter would continue uninterrupted,” he said. “Next as we began preparing for offensive actions, they sought feedback on our highest priority requirements. As our forces engaged, they continued to focus on our priority requirements and … [to identify] emerging requirements.”

Long dormant “battle staffs” at each depot quickly went to 24/7 operations to provide on-the-fly weapon support.

When a warfighting commander tells Air Force Materiel Command—which oversees the service’s three depots, or air logistics centers—that he is short a key weapon system or running low on spare parts, AFMC relays that request to a depot. The depot battle staff draws up a plan for getting the goods to the field and determines how much it will cost. Typically, cost isn’t a driver in supplying a warfighter’s immediate needs. Once the plan is approved, depot managers marshal the equipment and personnel needed to handle the special work.

The Air Force has three air logistics centers: Ogden ALC at Hill AFB, Utah; Oklahoma City ALC at Tinker AFB, Okla.; and Warner Robins ALC at Robins AFB, Ga.

Shifting to a surge approach has meant longer hours for the ALCs’ workforces. Normally, the depots operate on 40-hour-per-week schedules. Invoking the established contingency plans meant the work week would grow to six days and 10-hour shifts. That proved, in some cases, insufficient.

Some repair shops within the depots have been running 10-hour schedules, while others expanded to 12-hour days. A few even operate around the clock, said Michael Powers, AFMC’s strategy plans chief.

To turn out one of the first surge items—the ALR-46/69 radar warning receiver for fighter aircraft—Warner Robins had dozens of technicians working two, 12-hour shifts, seven days a week from September 2001 to December 2001. Prior to Sept. 11, installation of the radar systems was not a high priority. Following the attacks, however, the ALC technicians had to get hundreds to the field immediately for the fighter aircraft used in Afghanistan.

In addition to extending work hours to handle surges, the depots eliminated training and reassigned personnel from lower-priority projects. Such flexibility is seen as a strong argument against those who would privatize all air logistics centers.

The post–9/11 efforts of USAF depots, said Powers, underscore the value of maintaining government-owned and -operated repair centers. He argued that, if the Air Force relied solely on commercial companies, contracts would have had to be renegotiated, private-sector workforces could have gone on strikes, and private companies might not have had the space or personnel on hand to meet increased demands.

Debra K. Walker, AFMC’s deputy director of depot maintenance, agreed. She said the three ALCs offer “a known capability with government equipment to accomplish peacetime work and then surge for wartime.

Searching for Identity

Since the end of the Cold War, military depots have struggled to find a role in a downsized Defense Department. All the services maintain depots, and each has closed depots over the past 15 years under the four rounds of base closures. The number of military depots has decreased from 38 in 1987 to 18 today. Their largely civilian workforces were trimmed from about 150,000 workers to well under half that number.

The act of closing bases is always sensitive, but it was the recommended closure of two Air Force depots—the San Antonio ALC at Kelly AFB, Tex., and Sacramento ALC at McClellan AFB, Calif.—that became the most contentious issue of the 1995 round. The Air Force had five depots in 1995 and was to close two and transfer their workloads to the remaining three. All five depots had been operating at 50 percent capacity. By transferring the work to the depots in Georgia, Oklahoma, and Utah, the Air Force would save money by making each of them more efficient.

President Clinton, however, argued that California and Texas had already suffered disproportionately from the three earlier closure rounds. He tried to soften the economic blow in these two vote-rich states by declaring a “privatization in place” initiative, whereby private contractors would assume the government work on site at Sacramento and San Antonio.

Legislators from Georgia, Oklahoma, and Utah vehemently objected. They knew that, without the additional work, the depots in their states would be underutilized and vulnerable to closure in any future base reductions.

Resentment continued over the depot issue throughout Clinton’s term in office. Congress refused to consider a new round of base closures until the Bush Administration, and even then there was still concern about possible politicization of the process.

The next, and fifth, round of closures will be held in 2005. All DOD facilities, including the remaining depots, once again are vulnerable. Some Administration officials suggest that all the military depots should be closed and their functions handled by private companies.

In the 1995 round, home-state lawmakers were highly successful in protecting their depots. Their efforts helped shape a new USAF depot strategy designed to make permanent the responsiveness and flexibility that the depots have shown since 9/11.

Presaging the strategy, Congress passed two key laws that strengthened the depots. The first, known as the 50–50 rule, requires that half of all maintenance work on weapon systems be performed at depots. The second requires the military services to maintain core capabilities for repairing key weapon systems to ensure readiness, promote competition within industry, and guarantee a source of last resort for parts and maintenance work.

The Air Force strategy, which was announced last fall, builds upon those laws. The strategy calls for the ALCs to:

  • Invest nearly $1 billion over the next six years in modernizing equipment and rebuilding facilities.
  • Attract a new generation of workers.
  • Become more efficient by adopting commercial business practices.
  • Gain additional repair work by forming partnerships with contractors.

A Long Overdue Investment

At the heart of the new strategy is recognition by Air Force leaders that the service has neglected both depot infrastructure and its organic depot workforce. USAF plans to make its first significant increase in capital spending for depots in more than a decade. Beginning in Fiscal 2004, the Air Force will increase spending by $900 million over the next six years ($150 million annually). Currently, the Air Force spends about $140 million annually on depot infrastructure—about three percent of the overall depot budget.

With the increase, the depots will be able to spend about six percent of their annual budget on infrastructure repairs and upgrades—an amount more in line with industry averages. The increased funding will allow depots to keep pace with technological advances and overcome a $200 million backlog in replacing aging facilities and equipment.

According to Maj. Gen. Terry L. Gabreski, AFMC director of logistics, the additional dollars show the Air Force is committed to making the depots “world-class” maintenance centers.

Just as critical is USAF’s investment in its depot workforce—both in training and developing its current force and attracting younger employees.

USAF plans to focus more attention on attracting and retaining depot employees. Like the rest of the Defense Department, the depots have an older workforce, one with average age of 46. A decade of downsizing and hiring freezes has left the depots without a younger generation of workers.

The Air Force proposes several ways to correct that shortfall, including: creating a personnel system for depot workers that offers greater pay and hiring flexibility; establishing apprenticeship programs at each depot; developing school-to-work programs with local high schools and community colleges; and creating training organizations at each depot for both new hires and supervisors.

“ The sum of these efforts should allow the Air Force to ensure access to a technically competent workforce over the long term,” states the strategy.

Working Smarter

Thought of for years as industrial dinosaurs, USAF’s depots already have begun to embrace more efficient business practices and streamline repair and maintenance procedures. Depot personnel are being told to visit commercial companies to learn about their manufacturing processes.

“We had not been going out and asking, Who does this the best in the world?” said Walker. Increasingly, depots will develop more vigorous ways to measure production and repair processes and set benchmarks for workers to meet, she added.

All the depots have had success in implementing an initiative, popularized by carmaker Toyota, known as lean manufacturing. Simply put, “leaning” entails reviewing every step of a manufacturing process, pinpointing inefficiencies, and keeping only those steps absolutely necessary for production.

Leaning the C-5 aircraft routine overhaul process cut time spent walking to different areas for parts and tools, and, as a result, overtime dropped by 45 percent at the Warner Robins cargo aircraft repair shop.

At Oklahoma City, workers leaned various processes by eliminating 8,750 excess tools, freeing up 5,865 square feet of floor space, and cutting the distance parts traveled within the depot by 4,500 miles annually.

And at Ogden, the F-16 aircraft wing repair shop cut repair times nearly in half by developing a standard system for identifying problems that arise in the overhaul process. Both managers and front-line workers now use the same system.

Another key to gaining efficiency and effectiveness is to ensure full utilization of the depots. Maintaining the service’s key weapon systems—the core workload—accounts for much of the work done at the depots but not all. Additional repair and overhaul projects—known as core-plus work—are needed to fully and efficiently use the repair center facilities and their equipment.

There are two aspects to core-plus work. One has the depots taking on work for other services and working on older systems where no other source of repair exists. The other is to further develop public–private partnerships.

Extending Partnerships

Such partnerships have ranged from long-term, multibillion dollar deals for overhauling large weapon systems to short-term deals for less than $1 million that allow contractors to lease space or specialized tooling equipment at depots.

Powers said partnering reduces weapon systems support costs by allowing industry and depots to jointly share equipment and facilities rather than buying or building duplicate space and gear. In many cases, depots have technical expertise and equipment for repairing older systems that are no longer found in industry, he added.

“ Partnering with the private sector to ensure access to complementary or dual depot maintenance capabilities is an integral element of the Air Force depot strategy,” states the Air Force strategy. “It allows the Air Force to simultaneously support aging weapon systems laden with obsolete hardware and software, while integrating support for new and advanced technology weapon systems now entering the inventory.”

Partnerships also help the Air Force comply with the 50–50 rule. In Fiscal 2001 and 2002, when the Air Force was consolidating work from the closing depots, the service violated the 50–50 rule, forcing it to apply for a waiver from Congress. In Fiscal 2003, the Air Force expects to meet the rule. It will evenly split the roughly $7 billion spent on weapon systems maintenance between contractors and depots.

Air Force leaders are critical of the 50–50 rule, saying it prohibits them from striking the best deals for weapon systems maintenance through full and open competition for the work.

Jacques S. Gansler, Pentagon acquisition chief in the Clinton Administration, agreed. He said the Air Force could receive the best service at the best prices if it opened all depot work to competition. “I wouldn’t mind if the work was done 100 percent by government or industry,” he said. “If you arrive at it through competitive processes then it’s the right mix. Fifty–50 is just an arbitrary number that is politically based.”

Gansler noted that the partnership system does benefit depots by increasing their workloads, which allows them to operate more effectively.

The Air Force’s largest public–private partnerships were formed from the work formerly done in California and Texas. Rather than simply turning that work over to the three remaining depots, the Air Force allowed depots and private contractors to bid for the work in three competitions.

Cutting the Pie

One workload—maintenance of the C-5 airlifter—was won outright by Warner Robins ALC. The Georgia depot independently beat out contractors, capturing a seven-year $434 million C-5 contract. The other work went to combined government and industry teams.

The Ogden depot in Utah joined forces with a Boeing unit, operating out of the San Antonio ALC facilities, to win $1.6 million in aircraft, hydraulic, and avionics repair work for A-10s and KC-135s over nine years. The Oklahoma City depot teamed with a Lockheed Martin unit, also based at San Antonio, to take the largest public–private depot deal to date—a $10.1 billion deal over 15 years to repair engines.

Northrop Grumman has partnerships with two depots. In a $7 billion, long-term deal to maintain the Joint STARS radar aircraft, Northrop Grumman pays Warner Robins about $58 million annually for software and avionics repair work. Powers said the deal allows Northrop to take advantage of technical expertise already in place at Warner Robins, which has one of the world’s largest and most diverse avionics shops, rather than having to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in house.

In another deal, Northrop Grumman partnered with the Ogden depot to repair composite airframe panels and radar domes used by the B-2 bomber. The contract is worth about $20 million annually. As the bomber’s original equipment manufacturer, Northrop Grumman has a long-term contract for maintaining and upgrading the system. However, Powers said, the deal requires the contractor to use Ogden facilities, since it is already the world’s top composite airframe repair facility. Northrop does not have the expense of building such repair facilities. Ogden gains by making fuller use of its composite airframe capabilities and by generating dollars that can be used to buy the most modern repair equipment.

The Air Force wants similar partnerships for its newest weapon systems. Last fall, Boeing struck deals with all three depots, worth $150 million over seven years, for assisting in the overhaul of C-17 aircraft, the service’s newest cargo airplane.

Powers said the Air Force saves more money by creating support partnerships as soon as weapon systems are developed rather than waiting until repairs are needed. The service is working on such an agreement for maintenance of its new F/A-22 fighter aircraft.

USAF sees the partnering process as essential to its depot strategy. “Weapon system support concepts are transitioning from the traditional ‘organic’ or ‘contractor’ modes of support to a more flexible mix of responsibilities based on long-term performance-based partnerships,” states the strategy’s master plan. It goes on, “This provides the most flexibility in providing maximum readiness and best value support to operational forces.”

At issue for key lawmakers is whether the Air Force will stand by its depots and not shift too much work to industry. Service officials insist they recognize the need to preserve the three remaining organic depots to meet national defense contingencies and emergency requirements.

As Gen. Lester L. Lyles, AFMC commander, said upon announcing the new strategy, “Retaining the depots is not just an AFMC issue; it’s an Air Force issue.”

George Cahlink is a military correspondent with Government Executive Magazine in Washington, D.C. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “Send in the Contractors,” appeared in the January issue.