Sustaining Lethal Relevance

From Armor & Mobility, March/April 2019 Issue

The U.S. Army faces similar challenges in sustaining electronics, communication and support equipment for Army weapon systems that are maintained for decades. Many of these weapon systems are past their original designed life expectancy with no set plans to decommission, which presents the Army with both financial and readiness challenges.

By Alissa T. (Rese) Stevens, Obsolescence Service Lead, U.S. Army Materiel Command

It feels like technology is progressing faster than ever – and it is. As soon as a new technology is debuted to the public, developers are already working on the next new thing or upgrade. It can be seen in the consumer world, from cell phones to televisions to personal vehicles. A decade ago, smartphones as we know them by today’s standards, didn’t exist. The car stereo has been replaced with an overall media display unit with other capabilities, like a navigation system, car maintenance status and automated safety service.

While car manufacturers would prefer buyers to replace their vehicles every three years, most consumers typically hold them for at least six years. Elements of the car, such as components inside the media display, will become obsolete within these three to six years. If one of these obsolete electronic components fails, the car owner has several options to consider before determining the best path forward. Can the car continue to be used without the display unit? Do aftermarket suppliers have any residual stock? Can a new model be installed in the car? Should the entire car be upgraded? As a consumer, the car owner explores and weighs each option to determine the best solution.

Overcoming Parts Unavailability

Where the consumer can probably operate their vehicle without the failed unit or can look to replace the vehicle in total, the Army does not have that option. If the system is down, mission readiness is affected and lives can be lost. The Army needs to overcome the challenges of maintaining system readiness on legacy weapon systems due to the availability of parts.

Per Army Regulation 700-90, the Army Industrial Base Process, Army Materiel Command (AMC) is responsible for managing Diminishing Manufacturing Sources and Materiel Shortages (DMSMS). Likewise, obsolescence is a component of providing materiel and sustainable readiness for the Army.

There are two primary options for addressing the obsolescence issues of aging weapon systems: reactive and proactive. Reactively addressing obsolescence issues as they occur comes with a hefty price tag and a risk to system operational readiness. For example, in 2008 when The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) attempted to restore images taken from lunar orbiters, it found that the components needed to read the magnetic tapes had been discontinued in the 1970s and it would be prohibitively expensive to manufacture them. Thankfully, NASA was able to find the components needed, and the restored photos are preserved for history. But we cannot rely on chance and hope for critical weapon systems. By reactively managing obsolescence, issues are generally not found until a part or component is needed and a procurement request has been issued. By this point, the obsolescence issue can affect readiness and/or require an unbudgeted cost to mitigate the issue.

On the other hand, proactively managing obsolescence involves monitoring the parts and components used to produce, maintain and repair a system down to the lowest possible level. Proactive obsolescence management does incur a cost to the Army; however, it also provides time for the weapon system’s design authority to develop, budget, and implement the most efficient and cost-effective mitigation prior to the obsolescence issue affecting weapon system readiness.

Targeting Process to Identify Deficiency

To address the impact of obsolescence in Army weapon systems, AMC initiated an enterprise-wide Obsolescence Best Practices Integrated Product Team (IPT) in 2014 to identify the most effective and efficient methods to reduce costs on common commercial tools, reduce costs of mitigating obsolete parts, maintain system readiness, and increase obsolescence process efficiencies through knowledge management. With the emergence of Army Futures Command (AFC) in 2018, that effort is now a collaboration between AMC and AFC.

During the IPT review of multiple tools and available processes, AMC decided to adopt 10 Obsolescence Best Practices, which ultimately leverages the Combat Capabilities Development Command (CCDC) Aviation & Missile Center Obsolescence Engineering Branch’s methodology.

Army Program Management Offices (PMOs) and Life Cycle Management Commands (LCMCs) utilizing the Combat Capabilities Development Command (CCDC) Aviation & Missile Center (formerly the Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center until its move to AFC in February 2019), obsolescence management services have avoided spending significant additional and unbudgeted costs to the Army by implementing a proactive obsolescence management program.

In addition, these PMOs have also been able to reduce backorders due to obsolescence to less than 1% of total backorders. By leveraging common commercial tools across AMC and AFC, and by using CCDC Aviation & Missile Center-developed methodology, the Army is able to reduce the overall cost of obsolescence while also improving readiness across the enterprise. There are four core aspects to the AMC proactive obsolescence management strategy. First, AMC has reduced the overall cost of commercial obsolescence tool subscriptions by submitting a single contract action for each of the tools, as opposed to separate contract actions from each command.

Second, utilizing the centralized Multifunctional Obsolescence Resolution Environment (MORE) database improves efficiency and effectiveness across the enterprise. MORE is a government-owned database used to house obsolescence parts research and mitigations for weapon systems.

The term “parts” includes everything from microelectronics to electromechanical Commercial off-the-Shelf (COTS) items. Many of the hundreds of thousands of parts in the MORE database are used on multiple Army and Department of Defense (DoD) weapon systems. Since the parts research is completed once and dispersed to each affected weapon system within MORE, the manpower required to research the hundreds of thousands of parts is reduced. Efficiency is also gained by internal controls to automate as much research as possible and by using standardized research processes for research that cannot be automated. An additional benefit of MORE is the cross-platform visibility feature, which allows users to see if a specific part utilized on their weapon system is used on other weapon systems. This provides opportunities for PMOs to potentially leverage previous obsolescence resolutions or collaborate on future obsolescence resolutions.

The third aspect is continuing the AMC Obsolescence Best Practices IPT. No two Army programs are the same; they are in different phases of the life cycle, utilize different types of contracts, have different levels/types of repair, and a variety of mission requirements. Therefore, the obsolescence program manager has to tailor the obsolescence management strategy to the needs of the individual weapon system.

The AMC Obsolescence Best Practices IPT provides the opportunity to share successes, struggles, and facilitates open discussions on how to continuously improve program management for individual weapon systems based on insight from other experienced obsolescence managers. The open communication also allows for continuous improvement for new ideas and methodologies for research, database management, and program management.

Fourth, and finally, is communication and collaboration with the government and industrial workforce across AMC and DoD. The most effective and efficient obsolescence management teams include representatives from multiple organizations within AMC, the PMO, and industry. Within each weapon system the necessary representatives vary, but most include multiple individuals from the LCMC, PMO, prime and subcontractors and/or Army depots, and any other stakeholders based on their specific responsibilities to maintain the weapon system.

The LCMCs are responsible for fielding and sustaining Army weapon systems. The PMO is the single point of accountability for accomplishing program objectives for total life-cycle systems management, and the prime contractors, subcontractors, and/or Army depots are responsible for various aspects of the weapon system’s production and/or sustainment.

To ensure the best mitigation at the lowest cost to the government is selected, these representatives need to understand what obsolescence is, why it is important and what can be done to manage it across the weapon system’s life cycle. With that thorough understanding, these individuals are able to assess the risk of obsolescence impacts in a timely manner and implement the most cost-effective mitigations.

Proactive Life Cycle Management

AMC is also an active participant in the DoD obsolescence working group. Participation in the DoD working group allows for Army input into DoD-wide obsolescence management discussions and decisions. This, in turn, provides AMC and AFC the opportunity to leverage obsolescence management experiences and processes from across the entire DoD.

The AMC obsolescence management strategy is designed to identify and mitigate obsolescence issues before the weapon system is impacted while allowing for time to budget affordable mitigations. In turn, this increases the affordability and capability to sustain the Army weapon systems throughout their life cycles.

In virtue of the fast-paced nature of advancing technology, obsolescence will always be a factor in the ability to affordably maintain weapon systems. Through steadfast collaboration and efficient and effective obsolescence management processes, the Army is capable of maintaining its position as the best fighting force in the world.