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Telemaintenance: Transferring Knowledge to the Field

In the current operational environment, the German Army needs a way to exchange maintenance information and provide expertise to soldiers in the field, regardless of time or geographical distance. Its solution is a system known as “telemaintenance.”

The German armed forces, when conducting international missions, require fast-acting and efficient logistics support at all locations—even during crisis situations—and the presence of military logistics commanders at the front line. Logistics support must also be accomplished under difficult environmental conditions across the entire spectrum of modern warfare operations.

Approximately 80 percent of current operations are ground based. This does not mean that these operations are solely army operations, although ground forces usually perform most of the work in these situations. The Federal Defense Force—the Bundeswehr—currently conducts many operations in remote and outlying areas far from Germany under conditions that resemble expeditionary missions.

The environment of these operations is usually “asymmetric” and is not separated into forward and rear areas, but only operational areas. Missions like these demand a comprehensive presence and thus an appropriate deployment of forces into the operational area. The environmental conditions facing these forces can be harsh and demanding for both personnel and materiel. It therefore may be necessary to use weapon systems and equipment in ways for which they were not designed.

Basic Operational Conditions

In operations, troops are sometimes confronted with weapon systems and equipment that come directly from the manufacturers, which means that the repairers sometimes are not sufficiently familiar with them. These systems are usually complex and are used along with aged systems that have different designs.

The troops can be confronted with weapon systems and equipment that do not correspond to their organic equipment. Depending on the situation, the troops may also have to work with commercial off-the-shelf equipment.

The variety of materiel, along with the introduction of new products, can cause a significant increase in technical complexity. Increased complexity demands increased specialization and qualifications on the part of the maintenance forces, better repair equipment, and better maintenance procedures. Effective support of forces while conserving resources requires access to technical experience, which may be available only from civilian sources. In such cases, the use of civilian logistics support is indispensable.

Industry personnel can substitute for military personnel because of their connection to the product, in particular with materiel that is not yet completely operational. However, the employment of civilian contractors has its limits since, in an acute threat situation, military operations can change rapidly between escalation and de-escalation. During an escalation phase, civilian technicians often will not be available on location. As a fallback in such situations, logistics support must be provided by military forces. Since military personnel generally are not experts on the equipment, they must be supported by knowledgeable experts from the outside as needed.

Battle Damage Repair

The German maintenance concept for operations abroad is called the “materiel rescue chain.” In this chain, a system maintenance sergeant in each unit is the initial repair specialist in the field. He evaluates damage, assesses the extent of the repair measures required, and suggests the best place for executing the remedy in view of tactical requirements. He leads a battle damage repair (BDR) crew, which is qualified to quickly restore a vehicle or system’s basic functions so that it can continue the current mission.

Stabilization operations, such as the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, are not tied to a certain place. Forces deploy, reconnoiter, and operate jointly across the entire operational spectrum. Opposing forces pose a constant threat, and the threat situation differs by region.

At present, in operational areas, most convoys leave their field camps with a BDR crew. If required by the situation, logistics battalions can support combat units with their maintenance personnel. Repair of significant damage is conducted at forward support bases, where specialized civilian contractors are also available.

Vehicle damage and losses are part of daily business. It is not possible to leave a broken-down vehicle behind and send back mobile repair forces without providing protection for the recovery effort. The vehicle operator is responsible for the initial management of a loss. However, he will usually need expert support, which will often not be available quickly because of the wide dispersion of deployed forces.

As a result, repair squads from the forward logistics base or even from Germany sometimes must be deployed to repair damaged vehicles. That causes additional resource-consuming flows of materiel and personnel into the operational area and often leads to extended downtimes before the vehicle or system can be returned to service.

Telemaintenance

Because such a wide variety of equipment, vehicles, and other items exist in today’s operational areas, specialists cannot be deployed for each of them. Therefore, the primary repairman in the field is a sufficiently trained operational soldier who has immediate support that enables him to perform his complex mission. An exchange of information and knowledge transfer among deployed task forces and Bundeswehr and industry experts must be possible—regardless of time or geographical distance.

The German Army School of Land Systems Engineering and Army School of Engineering (TSL/FSHT) has developed a solution called “telemaintenance” that allows a transfer of expert knowledge to the troops abroad.

The term telemaintenance is vague and not yet defined. Some use it to refer solely to remote maintenance and repair, while others include other aspects of maintenance under the same term. The approach of the TSL/FSHT includes much more than just remote technical support. It also refers to a system that uses existing capabilities and seeks to improve and automate the performance of those capabilities. This telemaintenance system is characterized by the terms “prognosis,” “diagnosis,” and “monitoring and repair.” (See definitions in the chart below.)

What Telemaintenance Does

BDR and routine maintenance both begin with the operator and continue with extended and specific expert assessment using the materiel rescue chain that includes the system maintenance sergeant and his technical squad.

At the operator level—the first link in the repair chain—diagnostic data from the internal test system must be made accessible to the operator, the local technicians, and the remote experts as needed. These data provide an exact technical situation report and support efforts to eliminate failures or repair damage over the remote system if necessary.

Another option is consultation with the operator after a system fails or is damaged to describe the limitations of the system or point out necessary actions. Thus, the operator will not be left alone in a critical situation.

The system maintenance sergeant and his team at a maintenance facility in the operational area are the next link in the repair chain. The sergeant must examine a multitude of systems and repair damages on short notice. Especially in the case of commercial off-the-shelf products, the knowledge of the local logistics specialists is limited and requires access to information and data from sources outside of the operational area. This requires a support center, in the form of a “Bundeswehr Technical Helpdesk,” as a single point of contact for external support. This element must have access to knowledge-based databases. Contact with industry, for example in the form of manufacturer hotlines and manufacturer databases, must also be available.

Telemaintenance Modules

The telemaintenance system works through several modules. Module 1A, “Monitoring and Prognosis,” consists of a built-in display and control unit in the vehicle that monitors and displays the current operating condition of the vehicle. Indicators for preventive maintenance measures are available and internal tests are possible, enabling predictive and reliability-oriented maintenance that results in increased system availability.

The operator can also obtain further information, such as fluid levels, fuel ranges, and technical readiness status. This information, which is also important from a tactical viewpoint, can be used by the tactical network if required. The system is based on an onboard diagnostic unit in the vehicle.

Module 1B, which also relies on information in the vehicle’s diagnostic unit, enables the operators to request direct telemetric support from the system maintenance sergeant. The data are stored and are used as the basis for an electronic equipment life-cycle file.

Module 2 enables remote support by the system maintenance sergeant through onsite fault diagnosis and remote support, including technical expertise, provided by repair personnel in the maintenance facility. This provides a quick damage assessment and repair time estimate, expedites a decision on the location of repair, and contributes effectively to the development of equipment-related expertise.

Module 3 links the users of the telemaintenance system from the tactical level up to the level of the Bundeswehr Technical Helpdesk. Depending on the situation, voice and data communication may be necessary. Such communication requires a network of suitable communications systems that provide the necessary redundancy, flexibility, security, and mobility.

Module 4 allows the logistics inland base to make a logistics knowledge database available to users. It provides a central interface function for the operator, regional repair personnel, and industry. The Bundeswehr Technical Helpdesk-Land Systems should act as a single point of contact and should be able to assist with the technical problems that can occur in the materiel rescue chain.

Module 5 is an integrated demonstrator that connects to all the other modules. This demonstrator is designed to facilitate further insights into the primary fundamental functional requirements for a future telemaintenance system.

Current Status

The telemaintenance initiative has been accepted “in principle” by the Integrated Working Group for Capability Analysis within the Federal Ministry of Defense. The development of a phase document that describes the functional requirements for remote support of maintenance has been initiated. The components are outlined in the telemaintenance manual, military requirements are addressed, and further development steps are depicted.

This development process allows for connecting factors for the military and its partners to be identified. The system demonstrator could be successfully presented during field exercises. Three nontechnical studies also have been initiated. Within the ISAF deployment, a communications system technique is being tested to gain initial experiences from operations.

Integration of the capabilities of the condition monitoring and prognosis systems into the combat-essential requirements for vehicles and other equipment is likely. Questions about knowledge management continue to be examined, issues about the proprietorship of data need to be clarified, and a telemaintenance concept must be developed.

Logistics support forces in operational situations require extensive maintenance and repair capabilities. The telemaintenance system is the logistics system’s response to current and future challenges. The telemaintenance approach discussed here and its conceptual basic structure can ensure that innovations that are technically feasible, logistically inevitable, tactically necessary, and economically desirable can be introduced with minimal developmental risk.

Colonel Erich Pokorny was the head of the Force Development Division of Army Operational Logistics and Land Systems Engineering at the School of Land Systems Engineering and Army School of Engineering in Aachen, Germany, until his retirement last August.


 
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