Living the Transition: Shaping the F-35 Maintenance Approach at Eglin
09/25/2011 – In early August 2011, Second Line of Defense sat down with Col. Sampsel and Secretary Wynne to discuss the transition in maintenance culture and its challenges for the F-35. Col. Sampsel is living through the transition and Secretary Wynne was one of the architects of the F-35 and its maintenance approach. It was unusual to have an architect and a key implementer in a dialogue about transitional dynamics. This article summarizes some of those interactions and ways to understand the transitional dynamics and challenges.
Second Line of Defense sat down with Col. Laura Sampsel shortly after her departure from Eglin and retirement from the USMC. During her time at Eglin, Col. Laura Sampsel, 33rd Maintenance Group commander, was responsible for the bed-down and operational readiness of the three variants of the Joint Strike Fighter F-35 aircraft. The primary mission is to enable the production of pilots and maintainers for future training and combat units.
Secretary Wynne with his years of industrial, and acquisition experience was the dialogue partner with Sampsel during this interview and provides an interesting look inside the transition ahead for maintenance practices for the three services moving ahead with the new airplane.
The F-35 is the first combat aircraft designed with maintainability as part of the con-ops of the airplane. Increased ability to share maintenance practices across the services and the partners, as well as common parts provisions, are at the heart of allowing the aircraft to operate globally more efficiently and effectively. In light of the financial stringencies facing the allies and the services, if such a plane and approach were not available, air power capabilities would be reduced even more.
If one took the report which projected more than a trillion dollars to support the F-35 over its lifetime in 2065 dollars, and if one used those same 2065 dollars the figure for support would be north of 4 trillion dollars. We are not fans of using hypothetical 2065 dollars to do any analysis, but using the terms of the projected 1T in support, the maintenance revolution if fully realized can save more than 3 trillion dollars in hypothetical 2065 dollars.
At the heart of the maintenance approach is the digital capability built into the aircraft. As we argued earlier:
Digital systems allow many changes to occur throughout the military. We have already seen these changes in the commercial sector, and it is difficult to believe that the military cannot mimic such changes.
First, there is a significant reduction in the touch labor required to maintain modern vehicles or planes. The computer chips provide sensors and information, which allows a significant migration of knowledge to the machine, rather than relying upon armies of maintainers.
Second, the machines can tell when maintenance needs to be done. Rather than having a manpower intense scheduled maintenance regime, the platform tells you when it needs to be maintained.
Third, firms like Fed Ex manage fleets. They buy with a fleet in mind and with as much commonality as possible. This allows them to drive down cost by supporting more assets with common maintenance procedures and operations.
Fourth, commercial aerospace firms build their products with maintainability as a key driver. And they can use incentivized-based systems such as fly by hour to gain savings, which they can then invest in evolving the systems, which they build to optimize operational savings.
Fifth, the commercial standard is clearly to manage a supply chain to build and sustain a fleet. The global supply chain to produce modern products is assembled by manufacturers to deliver a viable and cost effective product. The same supply chain is used to deliver support. Having a core firm to manage both is a cost driver both for support as well as gaining information about planned product improvements.
SLD is a group populated by realists. The ability to realize the advantages rooted in the new aircraft will not happen overnight or without significant cultural shifts. In an interview with Master Gunnery Sergeant McKay, shortly before his retirement, the challenge was highlighted:
When I first got into the program a couple of years ago, the Nirvana was a USMC jet can land in an Air Force-Navy Base that has F-35s and be repaired, and fly home. The reality is that nobody else wants to play in that world; the Air Force and the Navy have no desire to play the game that way. Even the Marines at some point along the way have a real problem with somebody else fixing their toys and calling it good.
There is no standardization of maintenance practices among the services, let alone internationally. You’re talking an entirely different nightmare of, “I’m over-flying some other country, you need to land for whatever emergency, and need to get fixed.” Traditionally, you send a maintenance crew from very far away to fix that one aircraft, takes days, and then you fly home. Where if it was already resident on the base, why couldn’t you fix it right there with what you’ve got?
Tech. Sgt. Matthew Burch and Staff Sgt. Jason Westberry, from the 58th Aircraft Maintenance Unit, review post operations tasks on their Portable Maintenance Aid after the fourth F-35 Lightning II taxied into its new home at Eglin. The Airmen are among the first Department of Defense maintainers trained by Lockheed Martin logistics support personnel in the joint strike fighter’s recovery and inspection procedures. Both aircraft in the photo arrived here Aug. 31 in a four-ship formation with Lockheed Martin pilots flying the F-35As and F-16 escorts piloted by the wing. (Credit: USAF)
And the interview went on to discuss the challenge of transition:
SLD: But clearly the technology can drive change. The problem with maintaining the maintenance stovepipes, as they exist now, is that the technology and the plane doesn’t require them. It is as if Southwest Airlines with a common fleet of 737s would have three different maintenance cultures. This makes no sense. Deployment differences among the services are real and adjustments to the culture needs to be made to provide for such differences but simply to ignore commonality is costly, ineffective and reduces core combat capability significantly going forward.
MGySgt McKay: Absolutely. If we can have the services drive towards even common terminology, this would be good. For example, the USAF and the USMC do not have a common understanding of what being expeditionary means, and the maintenance challenges associated with expeditionary are different for the two services.
If we could get the services to agree on common terms and explanations of exactly what those mean. Differences in services, absolutely, there should be were appropriate but working through expeditionary logistics is a good place to start, at least, so we’re talking on the same sheet of music.
SLD: Why not use the common maintenance training facility at the JSF training compound at Eglin? One could build a cadre of cross-service folks who could shape that dictionary or build that language because you’re trying to do the cross-service training, cross-service maintenance.
Maybe one should be thinking about adding a core-competence to that schoolhouse of an elite corps of instructors who are actually bargaining through some of the language. And of course, you have the advantage of having the maintainers from the different nations there and the different pilots, which are actually informed by some cultural reality as opposed to just making it up. Does that make sense?
MGySgt McKay: It absolutely does. And I believe the pilot portion is much more integrated than the maintainer side. Because the core structure is broken out into modules, you can insert modules as you see fit for you service.
They can rebuild or they can build that courseware to fit a service need. The pilots like combat integration. USMC pilots like the fact that they fly with the Navy and will fly with the Air Force; maintainers, not so much. You haven’t broken that paradigm at all. And breaking that paradigm will be crucial to taking advantage of what the F-35 program offers.
The dialogue between Sampsel and Wynne focused on the core challenges of transition. Sampsel has shaped and lived through the beginnings of the revolution; Wynne was one of the architects in setting the revolution afoot.
It was a complex and varied discussion. In this article we will breakdown the conversation into several key elements around which the transition is evolving. The following chart summarizes some of those key themes and each will be discussed separately.
Shaping the Cultural Revolution with Regard to People, Processes and Training
Shape and Leverage the Joint Experience
Shape and Leverage the Joint Experience
Re-Alignment of Maintainers and Maintenance Process with the Airplane
Re-Shape Grades and Skill Sets of Maintainers and Shape Appropriate Transition Metrics
Shape a Service-Contractor Relationship or PBL For Effective Sustainment
Focus on Mission Effectiveness and Proper Roles for Government and the Contractors in Maintenance and Supply Chain Management
Management of the ALIS Upgrade Process
ALIS will Evolve Through Block Upgrades; Manage the Process and Expectations with Realistic Block Upgrades in Overall Maintenance Practice
Alignment of F-35 ALIS Information Systems With Other Maintenance Information Systems
Build Migration Strategy and Tactical Realignment to Get Most Effective Outcomes for Mission Effectiveness
Sampsel started the conversation by underscoring the core strategic opportunity offered by shaping a new maintenance approach.
Col. Sampsel: If we can align processes and policies within the services, I have full confidence that in the future decades, there will be two significant positive outcomes.
One, deploying fewer airman, marines, or sailors into harm’s way, quite honestly, which would be a key objective, especially for me. I’ve got a marine lieutenant who’s going out there. So the fewer that need to be deployed the better.
Second, you can shift your operational paradigm. It would give you untold flexibility when you’re doing your operational planning. You are no longer bounded by any of the basing or sustainment things that can, today, limit your capability. You can potentially launch, recover or divert anywhere, anywhere where there are F-35 deployments. The entire battle space grows exponentially.
And for me, I want Eglin to be the proof of principle for integration and jointness because this is what the F-35 program really is all about.
Breaking glass is how Sampsel described the paradigm shift. She argued that a cultural revolution in the maintenance and supply culture would be affected as one changed the approach of personnel, the processes to govern maintenance and logistics, and the training necessary to do joint and coalition maintenance and logistics.
Sampsel indicated that at Eglin they had put together a process among the services to both reflect and generate change.
Col. Sampsel: A key driver in getting the cultural shift was shaping and then leveraging the joint experience.
I had to figure out a way to force the Air Force and the Marine Core to stop talking past each other. My Deputy, now the Commander, was Col Mark Fluker. He and I started by realigning people and structure. The F-35 and the Eglin opportunity were new and unique. Neither a USMC nor USAF cookie cutter was going to work. We looked at what was best from each of our services and then decided to build an organization within the Maintenance Operations Squadron called the Joint Integration Division. It is “affectionately” referred to as the “JID” at the 33 MXG. It is actually quite simple. For every Air Force Maintenance Specialty that was built you had to have a buddy from another service. That’s your buddy. You, Mr. Air Force, are going to come in and tell me everything I never wanted to know about the NAMP (Naval Aviation Maintenance Program). How does an Air Force maintainer do it? You Mr. Marine are going to tell me everything you loathingly never wanted to know about the Air Force approach. I’m talking about in terms of their competency. Then they each had to come back in. All briefed me independently. Then they had to come back together, and put a piece of paper together to tell me that where were the significant differences between what they did.
Almost across the board, they together decided that really, there weren’t that many differences. Not only did this structure change and process build an increased technical competence; yet, equally important, it brought about, and continues to drive, a significant amount of respect and trust among the service members. That was the only way we were ever able to get a set of common maintenance operating instructions within the 33rd Maintenance Crew.
The shaping of a joint experience of providing what Sampsel referred to as commonalities appropriate to the task is central to the transition. And Sampsel indicted that the services have already swapped personnel to help with cross testing.
Col. Sampsel: One way you do it is you do exactly like what we did, which is you send Airmen to Pax, and you send Marines to Edwards! That’s one way to do it. Pax River needed qualified individuals to support some activity. The reality is the Air Force, in my opinion as a Commander, had the singular most hands on time with the aircraft. So after collaborating with my Air Force Deputy, Col Mark Fluker, we said, “Send the Air Force.” I didn’t care what color their uniform was because they didn’t have to deal with uniform paradigm, they had to deal with a plane.
Secretary Wynne added that as this gains strength the application of commonality where appropriate can shape an allied approach as well.
Secretary Wynne: The approach she is discussing can be extended into the international arena as an operating baseline. And as you shape in effect a maintenance Top Gun, why can’t you invite the partners WHO ARE ALREADY training there. This can be extended to an international Top Gun for maintenance, because the maintenance activities are across the board the same.
The third way to understand the transition is shaping the maintenance structure with the capabilities of the aircraft. You will need different skill sets for the F-35 than for legacy aircraft; and you will need to shape the grade structure differently.
Col. Sampsel: We need to figure out what are the core competencies required to actually fix the aircraft, and align our personnel to those core competencies versus persistently taking round holes and trying to shove them into square pegs.
If you do that, everything, a huge amount of the current inefficiencies start falling apart because now I can have Air Men, Marines, and Sailors in the same classroom learning the same core competencies.
Right now we have three separate service training tracks, we have different training curriculums and that’s driven by the fact that we’re all just different enough to warrant having to do that.
You’re really only different at the very micro levels based upon your operating paradigm. But technically you have significant commonalities.
With shaping common training, a lot of the inefficiencies start falling apart if you can get as far ahead of the game in terms of the man-power management, and really necking down to what are the core competencies required to correct the aircraft, to fix the jet.
And you need to focus on those core competencies.
Sampsel and her colleagues have made significant progress in shaping a correlation of the different service approaches and the ability to bring about core commonalities. It is important to respect service differences, but the commonality inherent in the plane drives significant change.
As Secretary Wynne put it: “Operational tempos and rhythms will shape differences. But those differences should not be used to block the commonality inherent in the aircraft or the weapon systems.”
The fourth key element to understand transition revolves upon re-shaping the contractor-services relationship in evolving the maintenance approach. The current structure is for contract services, but the goal is to evolve into a Performance Based Logistics Program.
Secretary Wynne argued that the key challenge is to focus on mission effectiveness and aircraft availability, rather than the government simply spending its time on oversight of contractors, or the contractors seeking to use government metrics to shape profit structures. The point of a common supply chain and support structure is to enhance significantly mission effectiveness and to seek optimization of the working relationship between the services and the contractors.
The fifth key element is managing the transition through the various block upgrades of the core software for the digital management systems for the aircraft. The Autonomic Logistics Information System or ALIS is at the heart of the revolution.
Col. Sampsel: ALIS is a true paradigm shift. It is not just an enhancement of current technology. But, and this is key, its full capabilities will not show up Day 1. We are in the very early blocks of ALIS’s software, and we are doing things with this software we have NEVER done before with an aircraft. We will transition through many blocks of the software as capability is rolled out. This part of the transition is without doubt, in my opinion, the most difficult to execute and manage.
We need as we do the rollout to have effective and realistic transition plans for each phase. We should have realistic expectations of what we can achieve at each phase. We have not done enough in this area.
Secretary Wynne underscored that a key challenge was gaining confidence in the reliability of the data as one moved forward with the new maintenance regime.
Col. Sampsel: I agree. . You have to mitigate it by getting service and industry experts aligned and putting them in the “right” place. Cut out all the middle men between the tactical unit and ground truth. Get people the information they need quickly. That ensures that you build that level of confidence. I remember when ATM’s first started. I remember my mother saved every single little piece of paper printed by the ATM, and checked her bank statement. Tell me how many Americans do that today? If you start demonstrating capability, you can gain people’s confidence.
Secretary Wynne: Except for one thing, and that is that safety is paramount. And I think you need to say that. And safety drives you to strong configuration control. Especially when it comes to expected maintenance activities. And until you get, frankly, reliability of presentation, you can’t get to reliability of expectations In other words, if you’re told you’re going to be presented with your bank statement then and there, and you don’t, there is a confidence problem.
A final element of the transition, which was discussed, is making sure that ALIS does not end up being a stove-piped information system. Sampsel emphasized that the USN and USMC have worked hard and long to shape an IT system for maintenance in which they had confidence to determine aircraft reliability and availability. That system required massive amounts of manpower to generate the data up to the Navy Aviation Enterprise, but is was considered reliable. How will this system be modified to work with ALIS and how would ALIS evolve to play a similar function?
Col. Sampsel: The Naval Aviation Enterprise has for the last 20 years, 15 years, evolved to one of the most significant and effective forums for Navy and Marine Corps deliberate logistic decision making. . Once something makes it to the top of the NAE, the F18’s are doing great, but this commodity is under performing, decisions are mad to reallocate focus or resources. . Decisions that you never ever have seen happen in the past are now capable of happening because the NAE is very powerful.
Within an NAE you have an IT system, which has been put together to report to the NAE. And the IT system is called Marine Commanders’ Current Readiness Assessment Tool (MACCRAT.). The cockpit charts, if you’ve ever seen them, they’re genius. Once you learn how to read it, unfortunately they’re not intuitive, but once you learn how to read it, it is one stop shopping at the General Officer level to truly be able to make permanent decisions. The key to that is they have absolutely confidence that the data they’re looking at is accurate and there is integrity from the sources.
There are very significant manpower costs to generate the verification of data. How much benefit do you get out of those and how much man-power are you willing to spend to keep it?
Final conclusions were provided by both participants about the challenges facing the transition process.
Secretary Wynne: We have effectively subscribed to and paid for a culture shift in capabilities that we now need to take advantage.
And your frustration is two-fold.
Number one, you see the cultural transformation that can happen. And you’re faced with a system that at West Point we call it 200 years of tradition unhampered by progress. So we, what you see, a system that doesn’t want to move forward.
Second, the things that you see that can really lead to breakthroughs are having berthing problems. So you are afraid to, frankly, risk your credibility by asking people to change this cultural phenomenon and bring those two systems together because the system might not work fully as expected, and indeed won’t.
Col. Sampsel: I agree. A key challenge is to figure out what are the core competencies required actually to fix the aircraft, and align our personnel to those core competencies. I.
If you do that a huge amount of the current inefficiencies start falling apart and you can shape the Cultural Revolution. Quite honestly, Eglin is the place to do it!