Low-hanging fruit for the Trumpenfuhrer: Civilian-run maintenance for Air Force planes

A Pearl Harbor Day thought from Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed (Ben Rich)…

One area in particular where the Skunk Works serves as a paragon for doing things right is aircraft maintenance. We have proven time and again that the Air Force would be much more efficient using civilian contractor maintenance on its air fleet whenever possible. Fifteen years ago, there were so many mechanical breakdowns on the flight lines at air bases around the world that it took three airplanes to keep just one flying. The reason: lack of good maintenance by inexperienced flight crews. We in the Skunk Works are the best in the business at providing our own ground crews to service and repair our own aircraft. For instance, two Air Force SR-71 Blackbirds based in England throughout the 1970s used Skunk Works maintenance. We had on hand a thirty-five-man crew. By contrast, two Air Force Blackbirds based at Kadena on Okinawa relied on only blue-suiter ground crews, which totaled six hundred personnel. Contractors can cross-train and keep personnel on site for years, whereas the military rotates people every three years, and valuable experience is lost. Currently, two U-2s are stationed in Cyprus with twelve Lockheed maintenance persons, while two other U-2s stationed at Taif, in Saudi Arabia, in support of the UN mission in Iraq, have more than two hundred Air Force personnel.

Lockheed had provided almost everything for the CIA spy plane program except for the pilots. Maybe an idea here for Donald Trump and his incoming team?

Ben Rich is not encouraging regarding achieving efficiencies in other areas of defense contracting:

IN MY FORTY YEARS at Lockheed I worked on twenty-seven different airplanes. Today’s young engineer will be lucky to build even one. … Obsolescence is guaranteed because outside of a secret, high-priority project environment like the Skunk Works, it usually takes eight to ten years to get an airplane from the drawing board into production and operational. Every combat airplane that flew in Operation Desert Storm in 1991 was at least ten to fifteen years old by the time it actually proved its worth on the battlefield, and we are now entering an era in which there may be a twenty- to thirty-year lapse between generations of military aircraft.

Unfortunately, the trend nowadays is toward more supervision and bureaucracy, not less. General Larry Welch, the former Air Force chief of staff, reminded me recently that it took only two Air Force brass, three Pentagon officials, and four key players on the Hill to get the Blackbird project rolling. “If I wanted an airplane and the secretary of the Air Force agreed,” the general observed, “we had four key congressional committee chairmen to deal with and that was that. The same was true of the stealth fighter project—except we had eight people to deal with on the Hill instead of four. But by the time we were dealing with the B-2 project, we had to jump through all the bureaucratic hoops at the Pentagon and on the Hill. So it is harder and harder to have a Skunk Works.

I was in Boston recently and visited Old Ironsides at its berth, coincidentally at a time when the ship was being painted. I chatted with one of the supervisors and asked him about the length of the government specifications for this particular job. He said it numbered two hundred pages and laughed in embarrassment when I told him to take a look at the glass display case showing the original specification to build the ship in 1776, which was all of three pages.

General Dynamics is forced by regulations to store ninety-two thousand boxes of data for their F-16 fighter program alone. They pay. rent on a fifty-thousand-square-foot warehouse, pay the salaries of employees to maintain, guard, and store these unread and useless boxes, and send the bill to the Air Force and you and me. That is just one fighter project. There are many other useless warehouses just like it. There is so much unnecessary red tape that by one estimate only 45 percent of a procurement budget actually is spent producing the hardware. … A Skunk Works purchase order for vendor development of a system used in an advanced airplane took three pages. The vendor replied with a four-page letter proposal that included specifications for the system under development. … But at Lockheed’s main plant, or at any other manufacturer’s, that same transaction typically produced a 185-page purchase order, which led to a 1,200-page proposal, as well as three volumes on technical factors, costs, and management of the proposed project.

At least the contractors and their shareholders get wealthy, right? Ben Rich says “no.” The F-22 project was a money-loser for all five partner companies, he says, due to the government cutting the number of planes ordered: “The sad truth is that our stockholders would have done better financially if they had invested that $690 million in CDs.”

For whom does the system work out? See a recent Washington Post story for how the Department of Defense’s management and administrative costs have grown even as the number of soldiers has shrunk, consistent with Parkinson’s Law (he chronicled the growth of British Admiralty central bureaucracy as the number of ships in the British Navy plummeted):

The data showed that the Defense Department was paying a staggering number of people — 1,014,000 contractors, civilians and uniformed personnel — to fill back-office jobs far from the front lines. That workforce supports 1.3 million troops on active duty, the fewest since 1940.

In an aside, he revealed that early findings had determined the average administrative job at the Pentagon was costing taxpayers more than $200,000, including salary and benefits. [federal versus private-sector pay]

About 84,000 people held human-resources jobs.

More: Read the book.


6 thoughts on “Low-hanging fruit for the Trumpenfuhrer: Civilian-run maintenance for Air Force planes

  1. Ben Rich has the numbers wrong and provides an incorrect picture of SR-71 and U-2 support.

    The ratio of contractor to Air Force support varied by site, but contractors have always supported the SR-71 and U-2 deployed locations. Cyprus (Operation Olive Harvest) was set up to be very low visibility due to host nation sensitivities and thus had more contractor support.

    U-2’s have not been in Taif for a very long time, and that deployment was probably a bit of an overshoot since it was the first time we were taking on Saddam in Desert Storm. The ops tempo during that deployment was much higher than other established locations.

    I’m pretty sure Kadena, Okinawa never got close to 600 personnel unless one included the KC-135Q tankers needed to refuel the SR-71.

    The arguments about trade-offs between contractor and military support have been on-going since the beginning of these programs.

    While Ben Rich may be focused on Lockheed contractors, numerous other companies provided contractor support for the sensor packages.

  2. My extensive experience with aviation maintenance involving military, civilian federal government and defense contractor employees is that there are pros and cons to all three. I also have a lot of knowledge of situations where blends of all of the three types were applied at a particular squadron at the same time or at separate times.

    Yes, it is true that the military personnel have a lot of turnover and that it is hard to maintain the skills set in a particular squadron. That’s just the way the military system is set up – the military encourages movement and progression to develop service members. The aviation maintenance portion of their duties is just one facet of the service members development. When it comes to rapid deployment overseas when the SHTF they perform a role that the civilian federal government and defense contractors just can’t match.

    The defense contractors and the civilian federal government employees are much more skilled and stable. Both of types are typically former military service members that got out early or retired. They are, of course, more skilled and much more expensive than the military service member. In CONUS, the defense contractors often appear much cheaper since their rates do not directly carry the overhead levels to take care of the military/government facilities (hangars, electric, equipment, etc.) that they use. So on paper the defense contractor employees seem cheaper than the federal civilian employees, but that is because the true overhead cost is paid for via a separate line of accounting. The defense contractors typically show up with themselves and a few light tool boxes capable of doing basic stuff and rely on that military unit to supply everything else. They may not need to do more than squadron-level maintenance and may not be certified to do heavy depot-level maintenance (of course there are exceptions). That may be all that is needed and lead to cost savings. The federal civilian employees are almost always sent from an organic government depot and will often roll in “heavy” with all certifications required to do depot-level maintenance bringing whatever equipment it takes to do whatever job comes their way. The choice between selecting the defense contractor or civilian federal employees to meet a maintenance need depends on a lot factors (e.g., capability required, speed to deployment, location (CONUS and OCONUS) and length of deployment, etc.)

    To say that one of the 3 groups is the clear choice to meet an aviation maintenance need is overly simplistic. All three of them bring unique advantages and disadvantages to every maintenance scenario. It really takes good requirements planning and analysis to select the most effective and cost efficient method of avaition maintenance.

  3. I realize it’s not supposed to happen, but what happens when the maintenance team is placed in real jeopardy? The air force guys may be inefficient, but they’d be expected to be more dependable in a war. (Is it safe to assume that we will continue to be the aggressor in all foreseeable wars?)

  4. SuperMike

    That’s a big consideration. Unlike military personnel, you can’t make either defense contractors or federal civilians deploy long-term near a war zone without financial incentive – even then you can’t make them stay if things get really dicey where they work. It’s a free country so they have the option to resign if things get too bad. During the Iraq war we had field teams being shot at by (fortunately) unskilled snipers while working on helicopters in reasonably secure areas. Typically the civilian/contract maintenance crews aren’t allowed to carry self defense weapons. You can have issues such as PTSD with aviation maintenance personnel in those types of scenarios. This is in no way intended to be disrespectful of contractor or civilian employee maintainers. Many of them are extremely committed to the mission.

    It’s one thing to do maintenance overseas in an area with a Wal-Mart and a McDonald’s down the street. It’s a whole other reality in or close to a war zone. Ben Rich’s comments are valid only for a narrow slice of aviation maintenance requirements – the military services already extensively use contract maintenance for special aircraft such as test squadrons and low population aircraft models based in benign areas.

  5. SuperMike,

    I know of one case where a civilian left a maintenance position due to fear of a chemical attack – but that was the only case I have seen in 30 years. Most likely contractors wouldn’t leave a unit en masse.

    In late 2006, private contractors became subject to the UCMJ (military justice system) when accompanying U.S. Forces during wartime or contingency operations. On paper this should make contractors less risky to a commander in terms of support during hostilities.

Comments are closed.