The U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a report on weapon system sustainment last fall (GAO-21-101SP). It is a redacted version of an earlier report because the Department of Defense “deemed some of the information in our August report to be sensitive,” GAO wrote. This should have been adequate warning of a serious problem, but election activities buried the news along with the DoD’s willingness to avoid the problem.

An attempt was made by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to get improvements, but little happened beyond a shrug that goals weren’t met. This attitude must change now.

The news is bad, but solutions are possible. We faced the same problem in the 1980s and found a simple solution: Adjust spare parts’ economic order quantities and safety levels to cover the uncertainty shown by prior demand. The goal was to assure that mechanics would not be waiting for a part while a multimillion-dollar aircraft languished. That simple solution worked for several years until cost cutters started reducing spares budgets followed by mission-capable decline.

It is time to start all over with a spare parts policy. No commercial organization would be satisfied with the current DoD mission-capable performance.

Logistics has a way of assigning performance terms that do not indicate the importance. For example, aircraft availability is determined by “not mission capable maintenance” and “not mission capable supply.” A person has to know a lot to make sense out of these numbers.

For fiscal 2019, the GAO study found only three of the 46 types of aircraft examined met the service-established mission-capable goal. Furthermore, for fiscal 2019:

  • Six aircraft were 5 percentage points or fewer below the goal.
  • 18 were from 15 to 6 percentage points below the goal.
  • 19 were more than 15 percentage points below the goal, including 11 that were 25 or more percentage points below the goal.

Another table pointed out that there are many excuses for low performance, but all have a common element of spare parts shortages (see page 14 of the report).

There is no shortage of management data. Readily available data on “not mission-capable” aircraft shows aircraft tail numbers, part numbers needed to fix the problems, parts sources and expected delivery dates. This is all that is needed for a parts expediter to find faster solutions. But results show this does not happen. New processes and operation rules are needed to replace the current management and performance failures.

The report describes the chain of command responsible for providing spares. This begins with the systems logistics manager and flows through many layers. No wonder performance is sluggish. Focus on results needs to be established.

I suggest the following changes:

  • Establish achievement within two years of mission-capable goals as a defense policy.
  • Abandon the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s current spare parts policies limiting parts purchases and forcing procurement through the Defense Logistics Agency.
  • Service secretaries report to secretary of defense quarterly on aircraft availability.
  • Accept spare parts budgets and fully fund related efforts.
  • Numerous procedural changes are possible to speed availability based on current, best commercial practices. These differ by service.
  • Implement the technology of artificial intelligence to speed operations and reduce bureaucracy.

The task does not have all the glamor of many other defense issues, but is a more essential element of success than many technological dreams being discussed. Other organizations, such as airlines, would not accept the Defense Department’s mission-capable performance. Why should the American people?

Everett Pyatt is a former assistant secretary of the U.S. Navy for shipbuilding and logistics.