Once a lieutenant in the Foreign Legion, Lt. Gen. Jean-Tristan Verna today heads France's joint land equipment maintenance organization, the Structure intégrée du maintien en condition opérationelle de matériels terrestres (SIMMT).
The land forces face budget cuts, but operational demands remain high. Verna is implementing a whole-fleet management program aimed at supporting equipment used in combat in Afghanistan and far-flung deployments such as Lebanon and Ivory Coast. He must juggle the demands of maintaining and upgrading aging troop carriers and tanks while introducing the new Véhicule Blindé Combat d'Infantrie (VBCI) fighting vehicles and, later, replacement fleets under the Army's Scorpion modernization program. A successful execution of that fleet program is seen as vital to the Army's ability to maintain vehicles, weapons and other key assets at home and abroad.
Q. What is the main challenge facing the maintenance of French land systems?
A. It is undoubtedly the cost of maintenance and the share allocated from the defense budget. If one takes a look at the amounts, they are indeed high, but they remain reasonable compared with the value of the equipment.
The problem is that modern equipment is more expensive to support compared to the previous generation. This is because of increased performance, greater complexity and smaller numbers. We no longer have economies of scale. A limited amount of modern equipment is more expensive to maintain than older, bigger fleets.
We will have two generations of equipment co-existing for a few years - for example, the current Véhicule Avant Blindé and the future Véhicule Blindé Multi Role [VBMR]. The first VBMR is scheduled to be fielded in 2015.
Compared to the initial acquisition value of the Army inventory - about 17 billion euros [$25.3 billion] - the annual operational maintenance costs a little under 7 percent of the procurement price, including in-house manpower and asset maintenance costs.
For the French Army, the challenge of the Scorpion program is to control the impact on the maintenance budget. We have to work with the Direction Générale de l'Armement [DGA] procurement agency to get more reliable equipment from industry, work with Army staff on equipment and training policy, to give us more room to maneuver and be able to negotiate flexible service contracts with industry.
Q. What about the French Army's Leclerc tank as an example of maintenance costs?
A. I often quote the example of the Leclerc main battle tank [MBT]. It is one of the most expensive items in the French Army. However, its yearly maintenance cost represents less than 4 percent of its comprehensive procurement cost of 9.3 million euros per unit, and that includes in-house maintenance manpower costs. The service contract with Nexter is 84 million euros a year, to which is added 8 million euros in manpower costs, so the total maintenance cost is 92 million euros a year, or 362,000 euros per tank a year, on the basis of 20,000 hours of employment per year, for a fleet of 254 MBTs.
Q. What is the whole-fleet management program, known in French as politique d'emploi et gestion des parcs? And why is it important?
A. The whole-fleet management program is a fundamental change. It is a new culture, a new approach. It is the only way to adapt the Army to the realities of operations.
The employment and management policy is designed to deal with the change in operational requirements, renewal of major equipment items, and financial constraints. In the current operational context, the forces are engaged in unpredictable missions, with unforeseen force packages, facing evolving threats. In equipment, two generations of vehicles are going to co-exist, and we cannot equip all units with the best items at the same time. The financial constraints require us to find leeway in allocating and using equipment.
We started introducing the whole fleet management policy in 2008, and our goal is to finish deployment in 2012. The program covers Army vehicles, major weapon systems and command-and-control assets. In the end, it will include most of the Army assets.
Q. What have you achieved in the fleet management program?
A. So far, our main effort has been in setting up the packages of vehicle fleets and support for training fleets. This has enabled us to ensure availability of the equipment and training of forces for operations, especially for Afghanistan.
The policy allows us to integrate new items, like the VBCI fighting vehicle and Petit Vehicule Protegé [PVP] and deploy them in the operational theater.
What is important is to have the right item at the right place and at the right time, not to have everything all the time but underused or out of order.
Under the program, by 2012, the regiments will have between 17,000-19,000 vehicles; the quick-reaction fleet, which is stored, will have 800; about another 800 will be for the training fleets; and between 8,000-9,000 vehicles for the central management fleet, which provides most of the assets sent for foreign operations.
Q. What is the outlook for private contracts?
A. We are preparing major contracts: support of the VBCI due in 2013; the Felin infantry system from 2014, which will be complicated because there is a lot of commercial-off-the-shelf electronics, therefore obsolescence; and a contract in 2012 for supply of tires and batteries. We buy about 25 million euros a year in tires, batteries and other energy assets, but the bulk of the negotiation will be on the logistic service provided by the contractor. We are preparing the technical service requirement for the VBMR personnel carrier.
Since 2007, there is a 10-year heavy trucks spare parts service contract worth an average annual 25 million euros with Renault Trucks Defense, and last year, we set up a new contract with Panhard worth an annual minimum of 18 million euros for about 8,000 small vehicles, including the Sagaie light tank, VBL recce vehicle, PVP and joint special forces vehicles.
The Leclerc Nexter contract will be a model for future service contracts for core capability assets.
Q. What are the rates of availability?
A. The target set in 1996, at the end of the Cold War, was 80 percent for assets in France. Generally, it's 70 to 80 percent for the active fleet of the whole fleet management, including C2 assets, but with readiness more than 90 percent in overseas theaters like Afghanistan and Lebanon, where support constraints are very strong, with more than 2,000 vehicles, most of them armored. I don't know a better benchmark in other European countries.
Q. What is the maintenance budget, and what is the outlook?
A. We spend about 400 million euros a year in maintenance contracts for spare parts and outsourced services, of which 370 to 380 million goes on the Army. That compares with more than 1.6 billion euros for annual aircraft maintenance and a little less than 1 billion euros for naval.
At the end of the current procurement period, which includes VBCI and Felin, the Army's need will be about 450 million euros by 2015-16 and beyond. Then it will be a stable figure, because future programs - VBMR and EBRC - will replace the old fleet, and we will implement new maintenance and training policies in order to stop maintenance costs from increasing. We'll have annual savings of 150 million euros through staff cuts by 2015. About 80 percent of the cuts have been done.
Q. Are there potential savings in maintenance under the Anglo-French defense treaty?
A. There's nothing specific in the treaty. We have to identify our British counterparts. Lt Gen. Gary Coward, chief of land materiel at Defence Equipment and Support looks like my opposite number, but the DE&S is changing.
Q. What are the possibilities for shared maintenance with other European militaries?
A. This is limited because we have little common equipment and in foreign operations, this is a national responsibility. Britain and France, and other countries, have bought the BVS10 MkII from BAE Systems Hagglunds, so there could be some common support, but the industrial arrangements for support differ in each country. With the DGA, we will try to have progress on this fleet.
The logistic stock exchange at NATO's maintenance and supply agency [NAMSA] works well for spare parts, and we are currently increasing our requirements to NAMSA. Ë
-- By Pierre Tran in Paris.
å Mission: Maintain land systems, including 40,000 tactical vehicles; 8,000 armored vehicles; 300,000 smaller weapons, including assault rifles and machine guns; 25,000 radios; 35,000 optronic systems; and 6,000 tactical information systems.
å Budget: 500 million euros ($744 million).
å Headquarters: Versailles.
å Command staff: 825.
Source: Defense News research.