Army mechanics are taking over the task of maintaining Stryker vehicles
in Stryker brigade combat teams. The author outlines his unit’s transition
from contracted maintenance support.
Unlike the heavy and infantry brigade combat teams, the Stryker brigade combat team (SBCT) was designed to rely on contractors to maintain the brigade’s fleet of Stryker vehicles. Now SBCTs are required to reduce their dependence on contractor support and allow Soldiers to maintain all of the vehicles and equipment in their brigades. After the transition, field service representatives (FSRs) will be the only contractors required on site. This article is intended for maintenance managers in Stryker units that will eventually make the transition from contractor (“blue”) to Army (“green”) maintenance.
When I was assigned to the 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division (an SBCT) in 2003, I asked one of my peers how difficult it was to work on Stryker vehicles. He replied that they were not difficult and I would not have to worry about maintenance for these vehicles anyway because General Dynamics Land Systems (GDLS) contractors would be responsible for their maintenance and servicing. Being the new guy in town, I duly accepted that piece of information and for the next year, as we ramped up for deployment, I had very little hands-on experience with the Stryker variants. At that time, I was assigned to the field artillery battalion within the SBCT, so I had fewer than 15 Strykers to maintain. When a Soldier walked into our motor pool and said that his Stryker was broken, all I had to say was, “Hold on, let me get one of the General Dynamics technicians to fix your truck.”
Following that deployment, I was reassigned to an infantry battalion within the same brigade. While in the midst of reflagging and moving to Germany, we started to hear talk of a blue to green transition for Stryker maintenance. When I first heard about the proposed change, I instantly felt a knot in my gut. I thought to myself, “This will not be a simple task.” I realized that my Army mechanics and I would soon be in charge of maintaining 75 Strykers. This was a scary thought since, at the time, I knew very little about Stryker maintenance.
In my spare time, I started reading Stryker technical manuals and also stressed to my mechanics the necessity of learning about the Stryker vehicles. We studied training manuals and also crawled under every Stryker that rolled into the motor pool in order to become familiar with the vehicle. At this time, GDLS was still doing 95 percent of the Stryker repairs while my Soldiers fixed legacy equipment.
After moving to Germany, the blue to green transition took a backseat to predeployment training, so GDLS’s support contract was extended. Deployment or no deployment, I knew deep down that the Army would eventually complete the transition, and I was not going to let my unit down by not fully teaching my mechanics and myself how to maintain Stryker vehicles.
In October 2006, I started my own blue to green program within my combat repair team. Working with the GDLS leader assigned to my unit, I teamed my mechanics with the GDLS mechanics. My mechanics worked right beside GDLS mechanics to assist with, watch, and learn from every job they did. We did this for about 2 months, and after the holiday break, we started off 2007 by switching roles. My Soldiers went from just observing to actually turning the wrenches, and GDLS mechanics began watching, assisting, and providing the technical support needed for each job. For the next 6 months until our deployment, we conducted business this way. By the time we got on the plane to Kuwait, I knew we were better prepared for deployment, but I still felt we were not fully ready for the blue to green transition.
When my unit hit the ground running in Iraq, we had several new elements and pieces of technology, such as slat armor and crew ballistic shield armor, to learn about and incorporate into Stryker maintenance. The added weight of the equipment, heat, dust, new terrain, and the effect of combat had a direct impact on the squadron’s fleet of Strykers. For a while, it was “all hands on deck” in the motor pool. GDLS mechanics and my Soldiers were working 20-hour days to ensure a high operational readiness rate. The learning curve was steep, but we managed to adapt and overcome despite any obstacles.
Ten months into deployment, the operational tempo slowed enough for me to take a hard look at where we stood in maintaining our Stryker fleet solely with Army mechanics. The Soldiers’ technical competence was no longer an issue. Fortunately, the new modification table of organization and equipment increased my workforce so that we no longer needed our GDLS counterparts. However, for the time being, GDLS was still managing repair parts and the FSR was serving as a liaison between the unit and GDLS and as a technical subject-matter expert for the Stryker.
The lesson I took away from this experience was that the blue to green transition is indeed a viable concept. The SBCT can reduce its contracted GDLS crew in the field to just an FSR and a parts clerk. Even with a few challenges, the big picture is entirely positive.
|An Army mechanic performs maintenance on a Stryker vehicle in Iraq.
While preparing for the blue to green transition, the human relations factor among Soldiers and contractors was challenging. Soldiers simply do not enjoy the realization that they are doing a job that someone else is contracted to do for about three times the pay. I call this the “show-me-the-money syndrome.” Motivating Soldiers to work while the handsomely paid contractors absorbed the air-conditioning in the break room was difficult. It was important to convince the Soldiers that learning to fix Stryker vehicles was for the greater good and that they were turning the wrenches because the contractors would not be there in the future. Turning the wrenches themselves is the only way Soldiers really learn how to troubleshoot the wide array of maintenance issues these vehicles incur.
Another challenge was convincing the assigned GDLS team to hand the wrenches over to the Soldiers, let them do the work, and become tutors to them when they needed assistance. During deployment, when the boredom bug can get the best of folks, no one wants to be told they are the B-team and that they are to sit on the bench even though there is work to be done. Getting everyone, from Soldiers to contractors, to understand the process right away was paramount to success. Sometimes, of course, assistance was needed from the GDLS contractors because, for the time being, they still owned the repair parts. Conveying this idea correctly to the folks on my GDLS team ensured that the working relationship between the Soldiers and the contractors was not tarnished by animosity or conflict over misunderstood roles.
Surprisingly, the biggest challenge was getting the infantry Soldiers to ask the Soldier mechanics for assistance rather than going straight to the contractors. These infantrymen depended on the mission readiness of their Strykers, so convincing them to go to Soldiers first when their Strykers were broken was difficult. When we first started, I literally caught Soldiers sneaking past my office to go to GDLS for repairs. The vast majority of those infantry Soldiers had been raised in an Army that is increasingly reliant on contractors to fix their problems. They also did not want to wait around for an Army mechanic to learn how to do it from the professionals. Over time, we won the Soldiers’ confidence and they figured out that my Soldiers were just as good as the contractors at fixing the problems. By the end of the deployment, mechanics from my combat repair team were the subject-matter experts.
Another challenge was using the GDLS repair parts supply chain instead of the Army supply chain. As a maintenance manager, I had to learn how to read and understand the secure database that GDLS used to order parts and track the maintenance status of Strykers. Since this system did not interface with the Standard Army Management Information Systems, I had to understand the program and obtain read-only access to it from the project manager so that I could request parts and monitor part status and authorized stockage lists. Maintenance managers must have a solid, trustworthy working relationship with their FSR and GDLS parts clerk.
I learned that GDLS has a fairly simple logistics chain. When a Stryker needs a part, the part generally will be shipped from one of four places. The key is to be able to track that part and put the status into a language that a ground commander will understand. Get to know the people who move the parts. The “squeaky wheel gets the oil” theory works on the civilian side of the house, too. No regulation or barrier exists to prevent a maintenance manager from directly calling or emailing supply representatives at the warehouse and asking for a more accurate status. Like the Army supply system, GDLS’s supply chain is based on demand, so at times a part was hard to get.
As funds tighten and the Stryker fleet gets older and larger, all SBCT units will inevitably go blue to green. I say start now. Set some internal milestones that will ensure success. Talk to your commanders and get them on board. A successful transition will take time and a lot of hands-on training for both the leaders and the Soldiers. The only true way to learn how to troubleshoot and maintain Strykers is by getting your hands dirty.
Chief Warrant Officer (W–3) Adam S. Hagenston is a senior automotive maintenance warrant officer assigned to a combat repair team of the Regimental Support Squadron, 2d Stryker Cavalry Regiment.