The C-141 StarLifter's secondary exhaust nozzle is a major
Air Force logistics headache. This crucial part is based on twenty-five-year-old
technology, and its high rate of corrosion and cracking gives it the dubious
honor of being the top consumer of maintenance man-hours on the C-141 's
When the nozzles cannot be repaired in the field, they are
sent to Warner Robins Air Logistics Center, Ga. Crews there will fix eighty-two
nozzles this year, at an average cost of $37,415 each. That comes to $3
million, so it is not surprising that Warner Robins has been seeking a
long-term solution to the problem.
In October 1987, officials displayed the cantankerous nozzle
at a technology fair. An enterprising contractor seeking new business said
that, with modern materials and manufacturing processes, he could build one ten
times more reliable. A development contract was let. Now USAF is anticipating
the day a decade hence when each C-141 will be fitted with highly reliable
secondary exhaust nozzles.
"It'll take us a while, but with this [new nozzle]
we're going to fix a long-standing problem," Warner Robins Commander Maj.
Gen. Dick Gillis told an AFA acquisition and logistics symposium held last
April in Arlington, Va.
Lower Cost, Higher
This change in nozzles exemplifies many of the actions that
Air Force leaders at the symposium said they must take to squeeze more return
out of logistics dollars in years ahead. USAF's logistics infrastructure will
have to become more innovative and responsive in the way it does business,
maintained Gen. Alfred G. Hansen, Commander of Air Force Logistics Command
(AFLC). USAF technology fairs, such as the one that sparked the nozzle
contract, are an attempt to manage better and generate ideas at lower cost.
In addition, the General asserts, Air Force logistics will
have to become more technically sophisticated. State-of-the-art materials and
processes must be adapted to support today's weapon systems. In the future,
reliability and ease of maintenance must be designed into new systems from the
"We have had to take a deep look at ourselves and those
things that could be better organized and more efficient," claims General
Hansen, "because we recognized that budget funding had gone down and was
going to continue to go down."
One of the AFLC Commander's prime goals at the outset of
1989 was to make his command pay more attention to customers. Traditionally
AFLC had not seemed particularly user-friendly, believing that its role was
merely to keep spare-parts bins full. Thinking of Strategic Air Command,
Tactical Air Command, and other users as "customers" in the
commercial sense may have been something of a cognitive leap.
Quality is another area of emphasis. General Hansen says
AFLC is embracing the Zen-like approach to quality control that Ford Motor Co.
and other US corporations have used to help turn their businesses around. AFLC
production workers now have a Quality Bill of Rights that permits them to
challenge "business as usual" and to place the pursuit of quality
This is not just window-dressing. Already, three AFLC
workers have been able to shut down production lines because they were seeing
products of dubious quality. What's more, claims General Hansen, "we made
those three people heroes."
Congressionally mandated changes in procurement are altering
the way AFLC does business. A case in point is AFLC's attempt to increase use
of competitive contracts. Over the last decade, AFLC use of competition has
At Warner Robins, competitive contracting has increased by
fifteen percent during the past year, says General Gillis. Today, some forty
'percent of dollars spent annually by the Center are let in competitive
contracts. The overall figure remains lower than it might otherwise be, says
General Gillis, because much of the electronic warfare equipment he needs is so
complex that it can be bought from only one contractor.
Changes in USAF force structure have brought about dramatic
planning problems. Only a few years ago, AFLC was expecting to support forty
tactical fighter wings; then the figure was lowered to thirty-seven; then it
dropped again, to thirty-five. This has led to parts being bought to support
planes that won't arrive.
"I have got one hell of a problem trying to plan
logistics support for a phantom outfit that is here today and gone
tomorrow," says General Hansen.
Cuts in AFLC's own budget cause greatest concern. No longer
can AFLC count on purchasing large quantities of parts to ease supply problems.
Parts availability peaked in 1987 and has been sliding downhill since. In general,
AFLC is buying only peacetime spares. War reserve materiel isn't getting
"If we don't have those massive piles of spares, we have
to look in other areas to make sure there is combat capability," says
For logisticians, USAF officials maintain, smarter
acquisition practices will become critical. The case of the C-141 nozzle was
one example cited by General Gillis of acquisitions that could help ease
logistics tasks. Among others:
• A new 60,000-pound loader. This vehicle and 25,OOO-pound
and 40,000-pound variants are crucial tools for Military Airlift Command. In
days gone by, they were purchased from the lowest bidder, period. But the
smaller models have not lived up to expectations, so AFLC is taking a new
approach for the 60,000-pound loader. In September, two contractors will be
picked to build two prototype loaders apiece. MAC will test them to see which
version it prefers. Once a winner is picked, a second competition will be held,
this one for a contractor to produce the winning design.
"This is a long-term operation," notes General
Gillis, "but we're going to get a loader that is workable, and with a mean
time between failures so far in excess of what we have that MAC is going to
have a warfighting weapon."
• LANTIRN. The
Low-Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infrared for Night pod system will be
repaired and maintained in a new, paperless automated depot. When the depot is
complete, Robins will have in-house capability for fixing some 300 repairable
LANTIRN tech data will be digitized on a computer database.
Training will be done by video. Material handling and storage will be
automated. The depot computer will track individual parts by serial number and
will collect failure data from the field.
"We will virtually eliminate all paper associated with
the LANTIRN project," says General Gillis.
Acquisition strategies aren't the only means being studied
by AFLC to wring more logistics out of the budget. General Hansen listed three
other primary changes that he is pursuing at AFLC: improving efficiency of the
logistics infrastructure, improving responsiveness, and cutting costs of
Modernization of AFLC management tools is viewed as a key
means for improving the command's efficiency, according to General Hansen.
Currently, AFLC is developing perhaps the largest military support data system
in the world, with nine core systems that will each contain 3,000,000 to
4,000,000 lines of software code.
In the stock control and distribution data system, for
instance, a part-tracking task that previously might have taken seventy-two
hours will take perhaps as little as twelve seconds. "We can tell a
director of maintenance somewhere whether or not that part is going to arrive,
at what hour, and what the mode of transportation is," says General
AFLC is studying automated warehousing systems for its $28
billion inventory and is restructuring inventories where possible to achieve
Japanese-style "just-in-time" deliveries. It has set up a joint
working team with AFSC to study ways of getting new weapon systems off
contractor support and into full in-house depot maintenance as fast as
A final efficiency change is a deceptively simple one: AFLC
is focusing its repair operations on problems that can actually ground an
airplane, rather than trying to fix absolutely every problem, large or small.
Setting priorities in this manner, notes General Hansen, has already increased
the mission-capable rate of the F-16 fleet by eight percent.
To help make the AFLC bureaucracy more responsive to user
problems, General Hansen has restructured large portions of his sprawling
command, moving 18,000 workers to different slots.
A large part of this change revolves around an increase in
the power of the AFLC system program manager. In the past, system program
managers were figureheads, says General Hansen, with few workers and small
budgets under their direct control.
Now item managers and buyers have been placed under the
system manager's authority. "For the first time, we have the people who
are making the requirements and the people who are buying the things talking
together," says General Hansen. "We're finding out that we're able to
process our purchase requests much faster. Quality has gone up on our purchase
Seven hundred new AFLC process action teams—basically suggestion
and quality-control groups—are now at work. Recently, such a team at the San
Antonio Air Logistics Center devised a new coating for the augmentor on the
back end of the Fl00 engine. AFLC maintains that the new process will extend
the life of the typical augmentor by two-and-a-half years.
Another recent AFLC reorganization focuses on logistics for
space. In the past, most space system support has been carried out by
contractors and has been marked by miscommunication and Air Force loss of
control over system configuration. The Air Force is now moving to
"normalize" space logistics, in General Hansen's phrase, and will put
space support under AFLC's purview.
One result is the appearance of a budding AFLC space depot
in Colorado Springs. Plans call for the depot, which employs 330 workers today,
to grow to 1,200 workers over the next five years. It will have total responsibility
for supporting NORAD's Cheyenne Mountain Complex and is planning to bring
satellites and other space systems under its logistics authority.
Squeezing the most out of the AFLC budget will also require
cutting sustainability costs. Revamping the AFLC infrastructure can solve only
part of the problem. The command will have to work with contractors to make
sure that weapons in the future need less maintenance and supply.
General Hansen points to wider use of the technology trade
fair as one answer to this long-term need. These gatherings, held at logistics
centers across the country and advertised in Commerce Business Daily, feature
parts that are causing trouble, whether they involve avionics or engine
components. The parts are laid out on tables, giving the whole thing the air of
an adults' science fair. In some instances, says General Hansen, "we'll go
ahead and write a contract right there" if a contractor proffers a
A carrot-and-stick approach is being adopted at AFLC for
improving contractor performance on certain stock items. The carrot is a
"Blue-Ribbon Contractor" designation for firms that deliver on time,
with good quality. Such recognition, officials say, can lead to more business.
That is because, on applicable contracts, AFLC is authorized to pay up to
twenty percent higher than the lowest bid in order to do business with a
proven, Blue-Ribbon contractor. All 241 stock item classes carried at Warner
Robins are open to Blue-Ribbon competition.
The stick is the Contractor Responsibility Review Program
(CRRP), which rates company performance on a kind of report card used by AFLC
managers in determining purchase decisions. The CRRP isn't perfect. "We
got a nasty gram the other day from a guy we said was sixty percent delinquent
on two of his contracts," says General Gillis of Warner Robins. "He
wrote and said, 'Your data is screwed up. I never delivered anything late in my
life.' He was right."
Even so, the report cards are going to be a fact of life,
claims General Gillis. CRRP will be one of his main tools to raise on-time
delivery rates, which currently hover in the fifty percent range rather than
the AFLC goal of eighty-five percent. Warns the General: "If a contractor
consistently fails to deliver on time, we will not award future contracts to
New Technology in Old
Weapon master plans are another means of addressing the cost
of sustainability. They layout the expected logistics expenses over the service
life of an aircraft or other system, showing effects of modifications on the
support budget. As a result, decision-makers will be better informed about the
costs of updating a weapon. "We're actually working on a ten-year
projection on an airplane, cradle to grave," says General Hansen.
"It's the first time we've done that."
The most promising way to cut sustainability costs is the
use of new technology. In the past, scientific advances tended to pass AFLC by;
now the command has a chief scientist to provide an AFLC liaison to the
scientific community. The idea is to ease the logistics burden by inserting new
technology in old systems.
Example: the F-111D digital signal transfer unit. At
present, two particularly complex circuit boards in the unit each cost $24,000
and sustain a mean time between failures of forty hours. These units can be
replaced by a single board at a cost of $3,000 and a mean time between failures
of 5,000 hours. The secret? The new board has one Very- High-Speed Integrated
Circuit (VHSIC), a cutting-edge microchip that packs an unprecedented amount of
processing power into a tiny space.
The Seek Igloo radar system, located at remote sites in
Alaska, also will benefit from a VHSIC retrofit. Currently, Seek Igloo
signal-processing units fail once every twenty-nine days, on average. With new
VHSIC technology and a modular architecture, mean time between failures is
being lengthened to seven months, and the size of the processing unit is
shrinking. Life-cycle cost savings are estimated at $315 million.
"With these kinds of results, we need to get VHSIC into
more of our systems," says Maj. Gen. Joseph Spiers, Commander of the Air
Force Acquisition Logistics Center. While upgrades to existing weapons are
giving it quick logistics payoff in the short term, even bigger savings can be
achieved by giving attention to the support needs of a weapon in its design.
That is the job of the Acquisition Logistics Center.
The potential importance of such an approach can be seen in
a just completed Air Force study of a High Reliability Fighter concept. The
study took a baseline aircraft—representing capabilities from the F-16, the F-15,
and other existing planes—and concluded that, in a thirty-day campaign, it
could kill about 5,000 targets. Then, using technologies that are now available
or will be available by the year 2000, the study rated a hypothetical fighter
whose reliability and ease of maintenance had been maximized. Target-kill
capability rose to 9,000.
The amount of money saved by designing for better logistics
could be great. According to one estimate, maintenance accounts for about
thirty-five percent of the life-cycle cost of military systems.
Use of new technology in other areas also could save big
bucks. AFLC stocks an inventory of 2,000,000 items worth $25 billion. Keeping
track of this inventory and moving it worldwide is an intricate and expensive
task, and any improvement in efficiency could have a big payoff.
The Microcircuit Technology in Logistics Applications
(MITLA) program is one high-tech effort to make AFLC inventory efforts more efficient.
It uses "smart cards"—small memory logic devices carrying a silicon
chip—to mark and track Air Force parts and workers. For personnel, smart cards
can store all service records, replacing paper files that must be moved on
reassignment. For parts, the smart cards will be able to transmit information,
such as remaining product shelf life, over data networks back to AFLC
Another experimental effort is the Micro Miniature Time
Stress Measurement Device, known as the Micro TSMD. This device is like a tiny
weather station, a combination of microchip and miniature sensor placed in a
weapon to record temperatures, G-forces, and other environmental parameters to
which equipment is subjected. Data are tapped by diagnostic tools.
First test of the Micro TSMD will be on the electronic
warfare system of the F-4G Wild Weasel. Eventually it could become a partner in
logistics with MITLA. "A MITLA tag can identify and record that a failure
has occurred and track the maintenance actions required to fix it,"
explains General Spiers. "The Micro TSMD gives the details as to why the
Even computer-created cartoons are being enlisted to improve
logistics. "Crew Chief" is an experimental, computer-graphics
simulation of a maintenance technician. Engineers designing weapons with
computer-aided systems now can plug Crew Chief into their workstations and find
out how hard it might be for a real person to maintain the new system. Crew
Chief shows whether a human can reach all bolts, whether he can see in tight
spots, and whether he's strong enough to remove a module.
"It actually simulates maintenance actions," says
General Spiers. Someday, Crew Chief might finally put an end to one of the
favorite imprecations of real chiefs experiencing problems getting something
off of or into a plane: "The guy who designed this should have to do it
Peter Grier is a
Washington-based defense correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor. This
is his first article for AIR FORCE Magazine.
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