In fact, depot maintenance and supply chain management – both fundamentals of an air logistics center – were specifically mentioned when Gates announced that he planned to squeeze $154 billion in efficiencies over the next five years.
Last week, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley added more clarity, telling an Air Force Association crowd that he believed modifying depot and supply chain processes could trim about $3 billion from operating costs.
Although Donley did not identify those modifications, savings of that magnitude may require revolutionary changes at a time when Air Force depots have a number of factors working against them:
• The nation’s international aspirations have not diminished in recent decades except to shift from Cold War brinksmanship to fighting a multi-front war on terror.
• Aircraft readiness expectations remain high.
• Key weapon systems are aging and showing the effects of constant use.
• Sustaining those systems has become increasingly complex, costly and much more difficult to plan and predict.
Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Ron Smith, who struggled with some of the same issues as Warner Robins Air Logistics Center commander, framed the challenges during a recent interview.
“The cost of maintaining readiness is enormous and getting much, much higher,” he noted. “And efficiency doesn’t just mean identifying folks who are sitting on their butts and not doing anything. They could be working themselves to the max, but if the process is inefficient, then the system is inefficient.”
Therefore, he expects the depot process to receive intense and high-level scrutiny … and the options will not placate the faint of heart.
“You either reduce readiness levels or you’re going to have to get more readiness for each dollar you spend,” Smith said. “It’s going to take more than just talk or merely getting more productive hours out of your workers.”
A decision to change international aspirations and readiness expectations will have to come from higher levels. The local focus must be on process and related costs.
Smith suggests that a number of factors might come into play. On the supply side, reducing the gap between demand planning and supply execution is critical. Mechanics must have spare parts when and where they need them. As for contractor repair of components, the focus should be on repairing only the number necessary to maintain stockage levels.
How the depot is funded and accounts for costs must also be reviewed. “It might be useful to examine how we fund commercial industry to do aircraft maintenance compared to how we fund ourselves,” Smith pointed out. “For that matter, how we determine flying hours and the maintenance cycle are fair game. Some of those ways are pretty archaic and there may be better ways to do them.”
Whatever paradigm emerges, it could cause leaders to revisit the old adage: “Close enough for government work.”
“That has negative connotations,” the general pointed out, “but we may need to turn that into a positive. In other words, we need to become so darn efficient that we can be just a little bit off and still be really, really good.”
Two certainties are emerging, Smith conceded. One is the inevitable, on-base belt tightening that lies ahead. A second is very necessary input from the community.
“The community has got to stand up,” he said, “and play a role in helping to find ways of reducing the cost of operating Robins Air Force Base.”