Lt. Gen. Lee Levy, commander of the Air Force Sustainment Center, is looking for trends in aircraft maintenance issues for a report he aims to submit to Air Force Materiel Command in the next two months.
The report is one of several steps the Air Force is taking in reaction to piling mishaps resulting in over a dozen airmen deaths in 2018 alone. So far, Levy told reporters Wednesday, his teams haven’t uncovered anything they “didn’t already know.”
“This is an inherently dangerous business,” Levy said at an AFA Mitchell Institute event in Arlington, Va., referring to a recent string of aircraft mishaps that rocked the Air Force and even led to proposed changes in the FY19 defense budget. “I wouldn’t say there are any surprises.”
Hours earlier, a T-38C Talon II crashed in a remote area near Columbus AFB, Miss. Both pilots in that mishap ejected safely, but there have been a total 17 airmen killed in aircraft crashes so far this year.
AFMC boss Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski requisitioned the mishap trend collection from Levy earlier in May. The sustainment center is uniquely positioned to determine such trends because problematic aircraft arrive at any one of its maintenance depots for repair. The request was also made to wing commanders, seeking a look at the “health of weapon systems,” Pawlikowski told reporters May 15, adding she’d tasked AFMC itself to mine data further for clues “predictive of the next mishap.”
“This isn’t about looking for the proverbial smoking gun,” Levy told Air Force Magazine. He suspects chances are low a “scary” discovery will come out of the data grab, considering the myriad safety mechanisms and process the sustainment center utilizes as a matter of course. Levy said on top of existing protocols, he’s brought in “large quality assurance organizations” to pull the center’s records and sift through them.
Prediction is a goal for the Air Force’s maintenance and sustainment enterprise that itself resonates outside recent mishaps. The Air Force’s new acquisition chief, Will Roper, told reporters in April the F-35, for which Lockheed Martin received a $1.4 billion maintenance contract, represents a larger sustainment challenge for DOD. As the service works to bring down overall sustainment costs, he said, it must shift to a model of predictive, rather than reactive, maintenance.
Levy’s $16 billion sustainment operation employs around 43,000 airmen, about a tenth of them software professionals, he said. Yet, he argued Wednesday, he can’t hire them “fast enough,” despite congressional loosening of civilian hiring processes. To address capabilities like predictive maintenance—from Pawlikowslki’s directive to Roper’s lament—requires a wider influx of these “soft forces.”
The Air Force is data rich and knowledge poor, Levy said, adding prediction is “more of an IT problem than a data problem.” Roper was echoing the same sentiment in early 2017, when he was still running DOD’s Strategic Capabilities Office.
Speaking to concerns regarding the F-35 program’s sustainment, Levy said it’s important to consider an airframe’s capability per flight hour, not just its cost per flight hour.
“We don’t want to make the wrong decision,” Levy said, alluding to canceling out tomorrow’s needed capabilities to save money today. However, the sustainment center is exploring “alternative management structures” in its partnership with Lockheed Martin at Hill AFB, Utah, and ways to elevate the capabilities of its depot repairs.
“Logistics and sustainment is an effect,” Levy emphasized in opening remarks about the dangers of considering the pair only as a cost driver. “It sets the theater today, it helps us project power into a theater, it helps us open a theater, it enables us to sustain forces while fighting in a theater, and it helps us reset the force for whatever next obligation we’re asked to fulfil.”
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