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Safeguarding fleet readiness through sustainment innovation (Studio)

15th December 2021 - 18:00 GMT | by Studio

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As the US and its allies increasingly focus on the threat from peer and near-peer rivals, aircraft readiness is more important than ever.

Brought to you in partnership with Collins Aerospace

To support their fleets, militaries are turning to new and innovative sustainment models.

The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently published a report on the country’s military readiness in various domains. 

Speaking at a Foundation for Defense of Democracies event earlier in 2021, Diana Maurer, the GAO’s director of defence capabilities and management issues, noted that several aircraft across the different services are ageing.

‘In many cases, they’re being used well beyond their expected life, which means they’re breaking down more often, because they’re getting older,’ she said. ‘And as a result, they can’t fly as often. So that degrades readiness.’

Lifecycle support or sustainment is key to delivering this readiness. But what does this entail? 

Craig Bries is head of sales, marketing and business development for the avionics business unit of Collins Aerospace. For the company, ‘lifecycle support is the placement of resources and technical capabilities that ensure mission availability of that system or platform,’ Bries explained.

While this may seem straightforward, the concept is complex, covering everything from logistics to spares to obsolescence management and the testing and repair of critical components. 

‘The key is that the support needs to be flexible, because our customers have changing demands and needs,’ he explained. ‘We need to adapt with those as the platform matures through the lifecycle.’

The ability to extend the life of a platform offers significant value to military customers in financial, logistical and operational terms. 

Jason Watson, head of operations and supply chain at Collins Aerospace, uses the example of a tactical radio onboard a helicopter. 

‘The ability to have the right products at the right time and turn that around in a sustainable environment is very important,’ he said.

To make this happen, Collins Aerospace deploys performance-based logistics (PBL). The PBL concept is a sustainment approach that’s fully aligned between the operator and the provider, Bries explained, focused on a particular performance outcome. 

For example, PBL could aim to deliver support based on factors like reducing repair turnaround time. This would ‘allow the provider to seek efficiencies in executing those repairs for the customer and allow the operator to ensure mission readiness’. 

Mark Ballew is senior director for global sales and marketing for Boeing’s international government and defence business. 

He said the company has had great success with its PBL contracts, with the concept growing more prevalent as operators recognise the capacity for higher operational readiness rates and parts availability. 

It’s also much more affordable because the onus is on the OEM to ensure availability, which they deliver through their “reach-back” to parts, components, and engineering design. 

He said that the company has been able to use such knowledge to develop algorithms that help determine when a particular part or component might have an issue.

USMC Huey
A helicopter airframe mechanic with Search and Rescue, Headquarters and Headquarters Squadron, performs his maintenance duties on the HH-1N Huey at Marine Corps Air Station (US Marine Corps)

Approaches like PBL are vital as aircraft grow older but remain in service, facing issues like component obsolescence and a demand for increased capabilities in a long-serving platform. 

The Boeing CH-47 Chinook is a good example, with the heavy-lift workhorse in service across the globe, in many cases for decades. Boeing and Collins Aerospace use PBLs and similar concepts to ensure the aircraft’s readiness.

Ballew notes that the aircraft has served in every environment, from sand to extreme cold. He said these have different impacts on platform maintenance, with the company deploying sensors to collect data in various situations. 

‘What should you do to operate it? How do you prevent corrosion? What do you do for extreme cold? We’ve got information to do that.’

Collins Aerospace works directly with customers around the world to support the equipment it provides for the Chinook

For example, it collaborates closely with Australia’s Defence Material Organisation (DMO) to provide 100% availability of the equipment onboard the country’s CH-47F fleet. This covers technology like the Common Avionics Architecture System (CAAS) cockpit. 

The nature of such PBL work depends on the customer in question. For example, Australia’s sustainment work is effectively conducted in-house, apart from its work with Collins, noted Colonel David Phillips, director of the cargo helicopter and autonomous systems programme within the country’s DoD. 

It uses various sources of information to support this work, he said, including the US Army and other CH-47F operators, before making decisions on whether a particular system is underperforming, for instance. 

‘Then we make a determination about what options are available, what represents value for money,’ he explained.

Australian CH-47F arrives
A new CH-47F Chinook heavy-lift helicopter for the Australian Army is unloaded from a United States C-5M Super Galaxy at RAAF Base Townsville, Queensland. (Australian Department of Defence)

Militaries must weigh different factors when developing their sustainment plans. Perhaps most obviously, they must ask whether it’s better to sustain the life of an older aircraft or buy a new one when the newer platform could offer lower lifecycle costs. 

However, when it comes to aircraft like the Chinook, it can be a complex choice. 

Countries must decide if they go with an all-new variant, Ballew said, including ‘the cost of the aircraft plus the cost of support equipment plus the cost of the training? Or do I go with and modernise or upgrade to the next model of an existing platform where I can save some of that cost?’ he explained. 

Technology plays a massive role in PBL and other forms of sustainment today, noted Watson.

For example, he pointed to the vendor-managed inventory concept. Collins Aerospace can oversee the inventory for a particular platform or part and then predict what’s needed in a specific region of the world. 

‘Technology plays a huge part as we advance, especially around warehouse management systems, understanding where the product is, and being able to move it in and out of the shelf on time,’ Watson said. ‘It lends itself to a timely turnaround.’

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