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Pit Crew Maintenance in the Brigade Support Battalion

In the operational environment of Iraq, equipment takes a beating under the strain of harsh heat and dust, generating challenges to maintaining combat readiness. While deployed, the field maintenance company (FMC) of the 626th Brigade Support Battalion (BSB), 3d Brigade Combat Team (BCT), 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), knew it would take outside-the-box thinking and inventive strategies to combat the elements and the strain on equipment.

So, Soldiers implemented “pit crew maintenance,” which is similar to how National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) mechanics keep their drivers’ vehicles in top condition. The distribution company relied on the FMC to keep its vehicles moving on the roads of Iraq, and the FMC took it personally when missions failed because of vehicle maintenance problems.

Like a NASCAR Pit Crew

Soldiers may say, “What is pit crew maintenance in the BSB? This is not NASCAR; we are in combat. Where is this written in our doctrine? Where is this found in the Army regulations?” Pit crew maintenance is nothing more than what maintenance Soldiers have been practicing since the early days of the Global War on Terrorism: replace the part and continue on with the mission, ship the not mission capable (NMC) part back, and let the sustainment maintenance team rebuild the part. Pit crew maintenance best describes the method that Soldiers adopted to maintain a fleet with a high operating tempo (OPTEMPO) and allow them to deliver supplies to the forward support companies (FSCs).

In the pits of NASCAR races, crews focus on component replacements in the hours before the race. With no time to rebuild an engine right before a race, the crew replaces the engine. The time spent in the pit area often determines the outcome of the race. In a BCT, a vehicle’s time spent in the bay drives down the BSB’s ability to support the BCT. Fixing the vehicle and getting it back on the road is the FMC mechanics’ objective.

Now that the Army has moved from a four-tier maintenance system to a two-tier system (field and sustainment), maintenance Soldiers are consolidated in one location to perform maintenance in a battalion. Transformation consolidated a brigade’s maintenance Soldiers into the FMC and the maintenance platoons belonging to each FSC. Units do not have the time to diagnose and rebuild components at the field maintenance level. In a NASCAR race, the pit crew changes the engine or major subcomponent and gets the vehicle back on the track. Our FMC did the same thing in Iraq, but in our case, we got the vehicle back in the convoy.

NASCAR pit crew maintenance is a team effort. The car will not operate efficiently if it is not in top condition before the race. Before the race begins, the car is checked from bumper to bumper for flaws in the frame, engine, and transmission. Military vehicles require the same treatment. Pre-mission readiness is the FMC’s greatest concern since its goal is to ensure that vehicles do not break down on the road. All military vehicles require regular services, and post-mission checks normally involve preventive maintenance services.

The Effect of High OPTEMPO on Equipment

The Army’s OPTEMPO has been high over the past 6 years, so its equipment has continually received upgrades and overhauls. In the early years of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Soldiers placed armor plates on vehicles to protect themselves and complete their missions. The increased and excessive weight pushed the vehicles past their physical limits.

The palletized load system and high-mobility multi-purpose wheeled vehicle (HMMWV) have been through various rebuild programs that have only addressed the components of the vehicle and not the frame. The HMMWV was upgraded from the M1114 to the M1151 and is now being replaced by the mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle to address the weight issues. But because of the constant upgrades and limited production of armored vehicles, units still use the M1114s to accomplish their missions.

In NASCAR, stress on the frame means reduced performance on the track, which drastically affects the outcome of the race. The same is true for Army vehicles. A prime example is the increased weight of the front cab of the family of medium tactical vehicles. When the engine compartment is opened for repairs, the excessive weight causes fractures at the pivot points. Currently, it takes the crane of an M984 heavy expanded-mobility tactical truck wrecker to open and hold the weight of the cab to prevent it from snapping off the frame.

The Army tends to react to the effects of problems instead of just fixing the problems. For instance, the Army will replace components with rebuilt parts instead of installing new engines or transmissions. Constant care is required to maintain and increase the lifespan of the vehicles in Iraq that do not receive new parts.

With the increased OPTEMPO and constant demand on convoy vehicles, an FMC must embrace the two levels of maintenance. Although the mechanics are fully capable and equipped to rebuild the parts they are replacing, an FMC cannot allow a piece of mission-essential equipment to be out of commission while it waits on repairs. A fast equipment repair time is critical to meeting the requirements of the BCT’s missions.

Annual Services Conducted Semiannually

The 626th BSB’s FMC identified the need for a more comprehensive plan to maintain an increased vehicle readiness rate in combat. During a year-long deployment, the BSB’s vehicles experienced summer temperatures of 130 degrees and a winter that produced snow in Baghdad for the first time in 20 years, which put additional stress on vehicles and their components. Regular services were important to keeping the vehicles on the road.

The Army suggests maintaining vehicles on annual, semiannual, and quarterly schedules, with a different set of services prescribed for each schedule. Instead of performing the semiannual and quarterly sets of services, our battalion performed the annual set of services on each vehicle every 6 months.

The warrant officers and senior noncommissioned officers found that the quarterly and semiannual services increase the downtime of mission-essential vehicles and do not address every area that is necessary to maintain the vehicle in top condition. The annual service is a more comprehensive check that is needed to maintain vehicles in a high state of readiness and has been shown to decrease breakdowns on the road. The prescribed services schedule consumes considerable time, and our FMC found that performing the annual services twice as often was more efficient and effective than the traditional schedule.

Preventive Maintenance Checks and Services

Vehicles are selected for missions based on the requirements to support the BCT. If a distribution company vehicle broke down just 5 hours before a mission, the company would not have time to find another vehicle and prepare it for dispatch. But since the FMC made sure that each vehicle regularly went through a series of preventive maintenance checks and services, one would already be mission ready and prepared to go at a moment’s notice.

The BSB dispatched vehicles every 7 days (instead of daily) to ensure that each vehicle received proper maintenance attention. Each platoon in the distribution company dispatched vehicles on different days to increase the number of mechanics available to surge on maintenance issues. All vehicles that went through the inspection section received a bumper-to-bumper certified check. Each vehicle was checked for leaks and stress fractures and insufficient tire pressure, fluids, and tire condition. This process made up the principal operator preventive maintenance checks and services before the vehicle was inspected by the mechanics.

Next, the vehicle moved to the ground support equipment (GSE) section for a thorough air-conditioning check. No vehicle is fully mission capable unless the air-conditioning functions at full capacity. The GSE section inspects all the components of the air-conditioning system and completes the check by blowing air through the system with an air compressor to ensure free movement of air in the vehicle. If the vehicle fails any part of the inspection process, it is NMC and the operator takes it to the motor sergeant to be repaired immediately.

The Department of the Army (DA) Form 5988–E, Equipment, Maintenance and Inspection Worksheet, is initialed off at the inspection by the GSE and automotive sections before any mission-essential vehicle receives approval to be used in a convoy. This process decreases the requirement to dispatch each vehicle daily and ensures each vehicle receives the highest level of maintenance attention before each mission.

During-Mission Maintenance

The driver and vehicle commander play a vital role in equipment readiness. During convoys, they see, hear, and feel what the vehicle is doing. Like the NASCAR driver who radios in and reports the slightest shaking or vibration to the crew chief, the driver and vehicle commander report the slightest changes in the performance of the vehicle to the inspection section.

What might be just squeaking or shaking to a driver means much more to a mechanic, and a driver’s input will help the inspection team find problems. During the inspection process, the mechanics can only visually examine the vehicle and may not hear the vibrations or squeaks that could lead to equipment failure on the missions.

Post-Mission Checks

Like a NASCAR pit crew, the inspection section’s mission included a final step to ensure all mission-essential equipment remained in the highest state of readiness. After returning from a mission, all mission-essential vehicles passed through the inspection section to be checked bumper-to-bumper, just like during the pre-mission checks, before being placed back on the line. The faults were captured on the DA Form 5988–E and, if at all possible, fixed on the spot. Vehicles that failed the inspection proceeded to the maintenance bay for repair. The maintenance section indentified which parts were required to repair the vehicle and placed the parts on order before moving on to a new job. No job was complete until the parts were replaced or on order.

The 626th BSB took the fight to the enemy. For the FMC, the enemy was 5 years of wear and tear on critical, mission-essential equipment. Conducting the annual services set every 6 months kept all but two M931 5-ton tractors from breaking down on the roads.

Preparing a racecar for a big NASCAR race is a 7-day process. After a race on Sunday, the car receives a post-race check to identify imperfections and look for areas to improve performance. Then, a total overhaul of the vehicle begins on Monday to prepare for the next race. Throughout the week, parts are stripped, cleaned, and replaced. For the BSB, this process started when the vehicle returned from the mission and entered the inspection bay for a post-mission maintenance check.

The creation of the pit crew maintenance plan addressed a comprehensive dispatch plan with a strict checklist for all vehicles. The inspector certified the mission readiness of all vehicles before approving them for future combat missions. The goal of this procedure was a 24-hour turnaround on all NMC equipment. The aggressive plan allowed the BSB to enjoy a readiness rate of 96 percent in the first 6 months of the deployment.

Mark Martin, NASCAR driver for the number 8 car while it was on the U.S. Army Team, stated that after a bad day on the track, “We’re like our Soldiers; we don’t quit, we just fight harder to complete the mission.”

Major Troy K. King is the executive officer of the 626th Brigade Support Battalion, 3d Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). He has a B.S. degree in education from East Tennessee State University and an M.S. degree in education from the University of Tennessee.

The author would like to thank Captain Tammy Bogart for her contribution to this article.