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Decentralizing Strategic-to-Tactical Maintenance Operations

What is the Army Sustainment Command, and how can it supervise maintenance operations halfway around the world?

The Army transformed to a modular force structure to create a more adaptable and sustainable brigade combat team (BCT)-focused force. At the same time, the Army Materiel Command's (AMC's) life cycle management commands (LCMCs) faced a series of problems in sustaining the Army's heavily used, aging fleets during high operating tempo operations. AMC's solution was centralized control by the Army Sustainment Command (ASC) and decentralized execution through the Army field support brigades.

This system has greatly improved the efficiency of Army sustainment operations, and readiness rates are higher than ever. However, to improve operational sustainment operations, a more decentralized approach must be taken. The key to decentralizing is the operational link and the logistics mission command capabilities inherent in U.S. Army Central and the theater sustainment command or expeditionary sustainment command beyond the joint reception, staging, onward movement, and integration mission.

That's Not My Problem—AMC Will Fix It

The Defense Acquisition Guidebook states that single-point accountability and performance-based logistics that focus on performance outcomes with segmented functional support will enable total life-cycle systems management. This language, translated to a warfighter, could be interpreted to mean that AMC through the respective LCMCs retains ownership of systems readiness and that readiness is on its report card.

Previously, local commanders at the tactical level retained the readiness ownership of their own systems and the theater Army retained oversight of operational sustainment. With the new two-level maintenance system, the unit replaces forward and AMC fixes rear. The ability to draw most combat equipment in theater changed this mindset.

Just imagine if Ford Motor Company decided to assume ownership of all local dealer maintenance. The dealers would become customers instead of partners. This approach has both pros and cons. Velocity-based logistics and strategic logistics response times in the Army have improved overall.

However, commanders have lost the ability to control operational maintenance focused on a main effort BCT. Specifically, commanders at the operational level need to have oversight with the appropriate data analysis and knowledge to make decisions that could increase in-theater component repair and refurbishment production. These decisions could be based on anticipated system or component failures due to changes in missions or operations. The overall centralized life-cycle management and operational sustainment system works because the sustainment community shares the common goal of taking care of the Soldier.

Decentralized Oversight

Optimizing efficiency and decreasing waste in operations seems like a good thing, but increasing efficiency too much may actually decrease performance. Pushing field-level maintenance down to the unit motor pools definitely increased efficiency. However, maintaining mission command over sustainment-level maintenance and certain component repair functions has hampered the ability of young, adaptive, and innovative leaders to fix systems faster and keep them in the fight.

The difference between forward and rear is relatively small anyway in today's full-spectrum operational environment. AMC brigade logistics support teams located in every BCT relay innovative ideas and field maintenance issues straight to the LCMCs in a streamlined reporting system. However, without a collaborative operational-level hub, these ideas are slow to spread throughout the sustainment community.

The real operational sustainment issue lies in the location and availability of the data analysts. A decentralized and closer commingled partnership should exist at the theater Army and theater sustainment command or expeditionary sustainment command levels to be more effective. Data analysis provides the "so what" that is desperately needed for operational sustainment leaders to make decisions on production goals, facilities, locations, support contract oversight, and cost-to-benefit efficiency.

The Army has recently realigned contracting operations under AMC with a decentralized control structure, the Army Expeditionary Contracting Command. Army Expeditionary Contracting Command support brigades are each aligned to a theater Army and provide decentralized expert guidance and oversight directly to units in the field. Contracting is not a single-point accountability process and is better managed as a decentralized "starfish" organization rather than the previous "spider" structure. (See sidebar.) This restructure is definitely a step toward decentralizing contracting operations and may be a future model for further decentralizing operational sustainment maintenance operations under the theater Army and Army field support brigades.

Spartan Field Kitchen

Define the Problem and Find the "So What"

Regardless of structure, operational sustainment maintenance leaders can make a difference. The tactical level is where the action is, and operational and strategic leaders frequently fall back to this comfort zone.

Tracking and reporting the status of fleet readiness at the "corporate" level only leads to more questions that do not address the problems. This creates a significant duplication of effort since LCMCs also track daily fleet readiness, even without a tracking system in place other than daily not-mission-capable reports. Using Army Materiel Status System reporting provides a better picture for senior leaders, and daily reporting by exception can keep senior leaders informed. The first step in defining the problem is to focus on linking the operational requirements, capabilities, capacities, and shortfalls with the needs of the Soldiers through analysis over time.

To provide senior leaders with a comprehensive understanding of this readiness problem, LCMCs and the Logistics Support Activity (LOGSA) should closely partner themselves with the theater sustainment command and focus more on the operational readiness gap. This gap consists of the over-time metrics and analysis that can provide senior leaders and operational planners with more information than raw data can. For example, component mean time between failure (MTBF) or repair part customer wait time, over time by origin, mode of travel segment, and supported routing identifier code, are examples of better data metrics at the operational level. These data can then be turned into real, actionable knowledge.

A short MTBF for a component may require a review of preventive maintenance policies specific to an operating environment or an increase in component repair production to bridge the gap between the tactical end user and the strategic supply base. These knowledge-focused data analyses over time may also yield faster and cheaper ways of doing business, even if some sustainment-level maintenance is pushed down to field maintenance companies. After all, a forklift hydraulic-lift cylinder rebuild and a fire extinguisher refill are both simple jobs that should be done as far forward as possible. This may be just one of the operational-to-tactical system improvements that can result in reduced cost and decreased equipment downtime.

Major Andrew J. Aiello III is the operations officer for the 82d Brigade Support Battalion, 82d Airborne Division, at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He holds a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from Norwich University and is a graduate of the Ordnance Officer Basic Course, the Combined Logistics Captains Career Course, the Basic and Advanced Airborne Courses, and the Army Command and General Staff College.

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