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Changing Times, Changing Minds: An Argument For Evolution Within Air Force Field-Level Maintenance
By: Maj Joseph D. Langan
“The dogmas of the past are inadequate to the stormy present.” – Abraham Lincoln
In September 2018, Secretary of Defense James Mattis issued a directive for all services to increase mission capable rates for specified platforms to 80% within one year. A harsh reality underlies this bold requirement. Air Force weapons systems, critical to the Joint fight, are not meeting standards that Combatant Commanders forecast they will require for potential Large-Scale Combat Operations (LSCO).
The reasons for this multi-year shortfall are complex and spread across the entire operations, logistics and sustainment enterprises. While a full analysis of this problem could generate hundreds of pages of analysis, discussion, and possible enterprise-level solutions, field-level leaders should instead focus on Air Force maintenance culture and procedures that we can, and must, reform in order to meet the demands of future warfare.
The Air Force maintenance community must revitalize itself while becoming more responsive and creative with its management of aircraft, personnel and equipment. We should do this by forging a new mindset that critically examines stale regulations, outdated analytics, legacy organizational structures, inefficient manpower utilization, and top-down decision-making structures. This new mindset must also plant the seeds of a new cultural approach that is dynamic, flexible, exercises disciplined initiative, and empowers our tactical-level leaders.
Revitalizing our culture should start with a recognition of the dynamic, complex operating environment in which we find ourselves, and the corresponding criticality of readiness. When imagining a model of effective combat readiness, one could picture it as a bar stool resting on three legs representing aircrew proficiency, maintainer proficiency, and weapons system health.
Without all three legs in balance, readiness fails. Maintenance culture is a supporting enabler for the first leg of the stool and the primary enabler for the latter two. As such, we should not take our responsibility to adapt and innovate lightly. Maintenance leaders should not be surprised that the threats we face, as outlined in the 2017 National Defense Strategy, are larger and more severe that those we have faced in the counter-insurgency fight since 2001.
Near-peer and peer adversaries seek to contest Air Force lethality, and as a result, sortie production demands have grown rapidly in the past few years. For example, since 2015 the fleetwide annual Ready Aircrew Program (RAP) requirement for F-22 pilots has increased by nearly 25%. More sorties with the same (or fewer) aircraft at a time when sustainment resources are scarce and MXGs are grappling with workforce proficiency issues presents a looming cliff of challenges to the maintenance community. So, what can we do?
Most maintenance leaders are no stranger to the “figure it out” marching orders frequently given when faced with a seemingly impossible task. However, in order to solve this particular challenge, we will have to collectively shed ourselves of many of the cultural and procedural dogmas that have been a part of Air Force aircraft maintenance for the last 20-30 years.
While many have attempted to reform and revise AFI 21-101 “Aircraft Maintenance Management,” it has changed (substantively) very little in the last two decades. Despite some attempts at streamlining, with every revision its page-count creeps ever higher. The Air Force Maintenance Metrics Handbook was first published in 2001, and 18 years later we still live and die by the same eight primary performance indicators,1 despite multiple new weapons systems joining the inventory and enormous upheavals in the logistics enterprise since then.
Indeed, those same eight metrics can be traced back into the Cold War years, and some recent studies have called for a review of this increasingly stale set of indicators.2 The core of our regulations for flying and maintenance scheduling have also changed little since the 1990s, despite a much more demanding and dynamic operational and training environment that exists today. Finally, our organizational structure itself, the functionally stovepiped Combat Wing concept, has now been in place since 2002.
Prior to this, the longest period of time the Air Force had adhered to one ops/maintenance organizational structure was 14 years.3 This is because Air Force leaders of the past recognized that changing operational conditions necessitated changes in organization, doctrine, training and procedures. Why, then, after two decades of the most operationally demanding period of conflict since Vietnam has the maintenance community not recognized a need to adapt again?
A recent vignette can serve to highlight examples of how overcoming legacy organizational structures, manpower practices, analytical data, and cultural mindsets can produce benefits for maintenance organizations. In November of 2016, the 325th Fighter Wing at Tyndall AFB with its 55 F-22 Raptors, was at a crossroads. The wing was still recovering from a particularly brutal summer of flying, with 158 Maintenance Non-Deliveries (MNDs) occurring in a three-month span. The fleet’s Low Observability (LO) average signature assessment rating was exploding out of control.
The fleet’s Maintenance Performance Indicator (MPI) set reflected this dire condition, with neither Aircraft Maintenance Unit (AMU) meeting more than two of eight primary metrics for four months in a row. As November drew to a close, this negative trend seemed to continue: in that month, the 43 AMU met only one of its metric standards. Judging from the data alone, November 2016 should have been a dismal month of flying.
An outside observer looking at the data might have concluded that the Wing was descending into a dreaded maintenance “death spiral.” However, reality could not have been more different. From October-November, the 95th Fighter Squadron met RAP targets for every active pilot in the squadron for the first time in months. The Wing met its sortie contract for the first time in nine months.
Most impressively, the 43 AMU produced a string of 38 consecutive days with 0% attrition…every line flew as scheduled every day for nearly six weeks, a feat almost unheard of in the author’s experience. In short, it was an eye-watering month of flying, and the disconnect between reality and the picture painted by the metrics serves to highlight their ineffectiveness.
The Wing accomplished this turnaround through several approaches, two of which are most relevant to this discussion. The first approach was to examine what institutional and organizational barriers were preventing the MXG workforce from achieving maximum effectiveness. Many maintenance leaders are familiar with the “feast or famine” problem that exists within many units.
Some specialist shops may go days without receiving enough work to fully employ their available capacity, and then suddenly become task saturated for long periods of time. At those times, leadership discussion usually focuses on increasing that shop’s capacity so that it does not become a production bottleneck. This approach is a short-term solution; it ignores a large potential source of productivity that exists during the “famine” periods.
MXG leaders should challenge their organizations to find ways to employ personnel within some specialist shops on the flightline (or wherever chokepoints may exist), though it is also important to minimize the impact to those technicians’ training and skillset retention. While those who saw or felt the impacts of the “Rivet Workforce” career field consolidation throughout the 90s may argue this practice will lead to a dilution of technical skills (i.e. the “jack-of-all-trades, master of none” effect), the maintenance concepts we use today, especially on 5th-gen platforms, open up opportunities that did not exist 25 years ago for a realignment of some workflow.
For instance, within the 325 MXG, certain MXS personnel were trained to perform aircraft washes on weekends. A large enough pool of manpower was created so that any given Airman only had to perform weekend wash duty approximately once every six months, thereby minimizing the impact to quality-of-life. By creating this additional weekend capacity and moving most washes outside of the flying week, the 325 MXG saw a 2.9% boost in aircraft availability.
This example is a fairly straightforward method of “leveling” the workload across the MXG, however many Combat Air Forces (CAF) maintenance organizations are experimenting with other, more comprehensive solutions that challenge traditional organizational structures. Hill and Luke continue to experiment with alternate methods of flightline organization with their “BOLT” and “LIT” initiatives respectively, seeking to take advantage of some of the flexibility afforded by the F-35’s reduced intermediate-level maintenance requirements.
These innovations include dedicated maintenance teams (an expanded version of the dedicated crew chief program) and more decentralization of traditional backshop capabilities that bring more technicians closer to the aircraft. These opportunities likely exist within organizations maintaining legacy platforms as well, but maintenance leaders must first be willing (and authorized) to experiment with new solutions on a grand scale.
The Mountain Home experiment represents the boldest and largest-scope of these decentralization initiatives thus far and is showing early signs of success*, as are other efforts such as those occurring at Shaw. Commanders at all levels should be empowered to task-organize their squadrons and flights to the degree that most suits the demands of their operational environment.
The second key approach that allowed the 325 MXG to execute a turnaround in 2017 was by inculcating a climate of trust and empowerment. Aircraft maintenance is an inherently decentralized activity, spread amongst thousands of airmen and dozens of facilities on any given base. However, by imposing a top-down, functionally stovepiped command structure (such as that mandated in AFI 21-101), creativity and innovation are stifled.
While we rightly train our Airmen (and each other) that procedural compliance with technical orders is paramount, we then apply the same rigid discipline to programmatic and administrative compliance. Discipline is critical to the effectiveness of any MXG, but it is too often also used as an excuse for failing to innovate or protecting the status quo.
With squadron-level empowerment and innovation among the top concerns of General David L. Goldfein, CSAF, it seems the maintenance community has lagged in embracing a more decentralized mindset.4 The vast majority of programmatic requirements levied on MXGs are dictated from the MAJCOM level or higher, despite depopulation of the A4 staffs in recent years and a reduced capacity to administer these requirements.
Of more than 2600 specific regulations in the current version of AFI 21-101, only 81 are waiverable at the Wing commander level or below. This leaves little room for leaders to lead and solve problems creatively at their level, despite Gen Goldfein’s intent.
To this end, aircraft maintenance culture should align with the most essential of Air Force doctrinal concepts…namely, Centralized Control and Decentralized Execution. That is, production priorities should be set from the top, where limited resources can be most easily allocated and organizational barriers to efficiency can be overcome, but authority for execution should rest firmly where it belongs: with the AMU, Flight, and Squadron leaders who most closely understand the local constraints and tactical conditions.
This concept within CAF aircraft maintenance is not new: General Wilbur L. Creech, Commander of Tactical Air Command (TAC), enshrined decentralization and point-of-execution empowerment in the initial publication of TACR 66-5 in 1978, enacting the Combat Oriented Maintenance Organization (COMO) for TAC, and subsequently adopted with some modifications by Strategic Air Command (SAC).5 More broadly, Air Force Doctrine Document 1 underscores the need for commanders to “resist the temptation to make tactical-level decisions that are best left to subordinate commanders and forward decision-makers.”6 The closely-related joint concept of Mission Command is built on “subordinate leaders at all echelons who exercise disciplined initiative and act aggressively and independently to accomplish the mission.”7
Just as our service and joint senior leaders are united in this vision, aircraft maintenance should embrace principles that unify our community in a spirit of innovation, empowerment, and mission accomplishment. Again, these principles are not new within our community, and operational and logistical realities dictate that it is time to examine them thoroughly once again. These principles include:
– Mission Before Organization. Functional stovepipes may generate efficiency in some cases but at the cost of effectiveness. Leaders at all levels should ask of themselves, and their unit, what is the most effective use of the capability they bring to the fight, and then be empowered to provide that capability at the point of need. The practice of “empire building” and staying within the traditional lanes of a particular AFSC just for the sake of the status quo must come to a close.
– Flexibility. Leaders need to apply a degree of judgment when examining a problem through the lens of existing AFIs and procedures, and staff agencies must allow them the regulatory flexibility to do so. Is there a risk that commanders may use that flexibility to make poor choices that result in failure? Of course. However, this risk is inherent in empowering squadrons and leaders, and occasional short-term failure (for the right reasons) is the “price of admission” to building an effective, resilient organization.
A key study on maintenance organization conducted on the eve of General Merrill A. McPeak’s (CSAF) transition to the Objective Wing concept cautioned that “the most important thing the Air Force needs to consider concerning future maintenance organizational concepts is to retain the flexibility of the past.”8 This insight still holds true today.
– Dynamic Action and Reaction. No matter how much we plan and prepare, there is an aspect of aircraft maintenance that will always be inherently reactive. The aircraft get a vote. While disciplined planning and scheduling is vital to minimizing the risk of unexpected events, the ability to dynamically react to those events is equally as critical. The Flying Scheduling Effectiveness metric has been treated as a barometer for organizational health for decades, and flying schedule Adds and Cancels have long been the “third rail” of flightline maintenance.
However, as operational demands increase in both scope and unpredictability, it is time to critically examine the long-cherished tenet of “plan what you fly, fly what you plan.” The flying schedule should be the starting point, not the endpoint. Leaders must be able to react deliberately, intelligently and dynamically to changing conditions throughout the execution of a flying schedule.
They must also leverage a healthy, collaborative relationship between maintenance and operations to balance short-term and long-term mission requirements. Dynamic reaction is not a license to be reckless, merely an impetus to use all the scheduling tools at a leader’s disposal…and good judgement…without fear of immediately descending into a “death spiral.”
– Disciplined Initiative. Related to Flexibility, and stemming from doctrinal concepts in Joint Publication 3-0, Disciplined Initiative is a charge to our tactical-level leaders (the NCOs forming the backbone of our AMUs and flights) to make informed decisions within the “grey zone” of technical and procedural ambiguity that comprises many of the day-to-day decisions of aircraft maintenance.
Rather than constantly pausing production to seek adjudication from a higher authority, tactical-level leaders should be trained and encouraged to recognize which decisions lie within the scope of their authority, and that they will have top-cover even if their well-informed intentions fare poorly.
– Trust and Empowerment. Perhaps the most important principle, trust and empowerment courses through any effective organization, within the military or elsewhere. Publicly demonstrated trust in subordinates inspires confidence, loyalty and pride. Empowerment drives creativity, resilience and peak performance. This principle naturally carries some amount of risk for a commander…trust is sometimes abused.
However, as with Flexibility, a short-term investment of risk acceptance is often required for long-term success. Neither does empowerment relieve a commander of the responsibility to guide his or her organization, or be accountable for its missteps. It is merely a recognition that Airmen perform at their highest potential when they feel unencumbered by bureaucracy and micromanagement.
While allocations of resources may not always show it, aircraft maintenance is the solid bedrock upon which rests our lethality in the air domain. Because of this, combat readiness is at the heart of our profession, our raison d’etre, not to mention COMACC’s top priority.9 Our senior leaders have charged all Airmen to critically evaluate the status quo and apply creative solutions to the operational problems facing us.
To that end, the maintenance community must re-energize itself and actively seek out those areas of our profession that no longer make sense, or at least warrant substantial revision. Innovation that outpaces our adversaries will rely on unleashing our flightline and backshop leaders; they have the capacity to uncover creative solutions far quicker than any MAJCOM staff.
In order to become more responsive and capable, our community must adopt a new mindset that critically examines stale regulations, outdated analytics, legacy organizational structures, inefficient manpower utilization, and top-heavy decision-making structures. This new mindset must also plant the seeds of a new cultural approach that is dynamic, flexible, exercises disciplined initiative, and empowers our tactical-level leaders. The specter of looming conflict and ever-increasing operational tempo requires nothing less.
* An entire dissertation could be written on the Mountain Home AFB re-organization experiment and the implications for maintenance culture, but a detailed discussion is omitted here for the sake of brevity.
- Air Force Logistics Management Agency. Metrics Handbook for Maintenance Leaders. Maxwell AFB, AL, 2001.
- Stahl, Maj Adrienne. “A Survey and Analysis of Aircraft Maintenance Metrics: A Balanced Scorecard Approach.” Wright-Patterson AFB, OH: Air Force Institute of Technology, March 2014: 7-8.
- George, David; Lynch, Kristen; Tripp, Robert; Drew, John. “Lessons for Transforming Logistics.” Air Force Journal of Logistics, December 2004: 28-38.
- Air Force Public Affairs. “AF to fund squadron innovation that improves mission effectiveness.” https://www.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/1448681/af-to-fund-squadron-innovation-that-improves-mission-effectiveness, Feb 23, 2018.
- Reiter, Lt Col Thomas E. USAF Aircraft Maintenance Organizational Structure: Where We’ve Been, Where We Are, What’s the Future. Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Library, 1988: 30.
- Curtis E. LeMay Center for Doctrine Development and Education. Air Force Doctrine Document 1. Maxwell AFB, AL, 2015: 68.
- The Joint Staff. Joint Publication 3-0 Joint Operations. Arlington, VA, 2017: II-2.
- Reiter, Lt Col Thomas E. USAF Aircraft Maintenance Organizational Structure: Where We’ve Been, Where We Are, What’s the Future. Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Library, 1988: 37.
- ACC Public Affairs. ACC Flight Plan: Gen Holmes takes the stick at ACC. Langley AFB, VA, 2017.
About the author:
Maj Dan Langan is an aircraft maintenance officer and currently a student at the US Army’s Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, KS.
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