The anti-terror war that the Air Force is waging from forward operating locations might well be called a “two-through-five war,” asserts USAF’s top logistics officer.
Lt. Gen. Michael E. Zettler, deputy chief of staff for installations and logistics, reports that he has made many visits to bases now being used for Operation Enduring Freedom. What was most striking, he said, was the performance of those airmen with two, three, four, or five stripes on their sleeves.
These ranks–airman first class through technical sergeant–were “the heart and soul” of the job, said Zettler.
The general was quick to say that his observation is not meant to detract from the effort of senior noncommissioned officers and officers, who have provided advanced technical skills, management, and leadership.
However, he said, it was those in the lower ranks who were erecting the tent facilities, getting USAF communications systems up and running, fixing airplanes, moving cargo, providing spares support, and even putting up fitness centers and facilities.
“The muscle of the Air Force was [provided by] these young men and women,” said Zettler in a wide-ranging interview.
Zettler discussed not only the war effort but also aging aircraft, the high cost of readiness, aircraft cannibalization, spare parts, depot modernization, and the 50-50 government-industry work share issue.
The task of supporting Enduring Freedom has posed one of the most daunting logistics challenges that the Air Force has faced since the Gulf War in 1991. Conditions are harsh and operating locations remote. Some of the installations, such as Bagram air base in Afghanistan itself, are far more primitive than any the Air Force used during Desert Storm.
Yet the service sortie success rate has been greater than 99.5 percent. Virtually every aircraft takes off as planned. And everyone from aircraft maintainers to munitions handlers has worked together like a well-coached team.
“If we fly 60 to 180 sorties a day, and we lose one sortie every other day, it’s almost like a surprise,” said Zettler.
Most impressive have been the troops who have risen to the task of operating in austere conditions and also have come through with solutions to problems they would not have faced back at home bases.
At one forward base, for instance, military personnel had been living entirely on bottled water. So two airmen took it upon themselves to find ways to cut down on the significant time and cost it was taking to bring water in. They set up a system of reverse osmosis purification, taking existing equipment and making it so efficient that it could produce enough water for sanitation, cooking, and cleaning.
When Zettler visited the base, the airmen gave him a short demonstration of their system. “At the end of the presentation by these two airmen I was handed a glass of water,” said Zettler. “You have very little choice, so I drank the water. Everything was fine.”
Similarly, small groups of civil engineers are working miracles in the Enduring Freedom area of operations, particularly with construction projects.
One huge ramp was built entirely by RED HORSE civil engineering teams. They did everything themselves–obtaining fill material, packing it in place, laying asphalt on top, and then capping the whole thing with several inches of concrete. The result was a permanent aircraft parking ramp of a size equivalent to 22 football fields. At al Udeid air base in Qatar, another crew built another such ramp.
“And the ramps are as good as anything you’ll find commercially anywhere in the world,” said Zettler. “They’re capable of handling our largest airplanes.”
Al Udeid and other locations have been turned into large integrated bases almost overnight, said the chief logistician. The tents are organized, the streets identified. Flagpoles have their traditional signs marking the miles to New York or San Francisco.
“I’m very proud of our engineers and services people for taking care of our people in such an outstanding fashion,” said Zettler. “It makes that 90 days … of deployment a lot more palatable.”
Supply, transportation, and crucial communications links are now up and working as well. From a logistics-and-installations standpoint, the entire Enduring Freedom area of operations is working “phenomenally well,” according to Zettler.
“The churn of the early stages is gone,” he said. “We are in a long-term sustainment mode right now.”
Other unsung heroes are the fuels specialists. They’ve done everything possible to make fuel available for all aircraft, as needed, where needed.
“The parts of the world we’re operating in may have a lot of gas in the ground, but they don’t have a lot of gas in tanks and bladder bags,” said Zettler.
Yet the fuels people have put up the infrastructure to power more than 100,000 sorties through early fall, without a single gas problem.
Back home, one of the largest logistics challenges the Air Force faces, from a technical standpoint, is aging aircraft. Today the average age of Air Force airplanes is around 22 years.
“If we buy every airplane that we’ve got in the [plan], it will still go to about 30 years by 2015 or 2020,” said Zettler. “So we’re in uncharted territory.”
There is certainly risk in having such an elderly fleet. It is not so much flight safety risk as one of technical surprises. Who knows what problems will suddenly surface? Who knows how much time and money will be needed to fix them
As Zettler tells it, there is a risk the Air Force won’t have its maintenance programs laid out as well as it should. There’s a risk of increased aircraft downtime. There’s a risk of technical obsolescence–particularly in the area of avionics.
“So you’ve got three or four areas that add to the risk of operating an Air Force that’s increasingly aging,” said Zettler.
Aging Fleet Problems
One place the Air Force is feeling its airplanes’ age is in the service pocketbook. The cost of flying hours is going up as the fleet gets older. “It looks to me, depending on how you measure it, that we’re going up at about eight to 10 percent [annually] after you adjust for inflation,” he added.
Material costs are the biggest driver of this growth. Parts are breaking down because of their age and the conditions under which they are operated.
“Things we typically see wearing out are structures and avionics,” said Zettler. “Those are things that cost us an awful lot of dollars to maintain.”
Age certainly has affected USAF’s C-135 fleet, for example. Aging–combined with base closings and a contractor strike–caused a huge number of C-135s to stack up waiting for depot maintenance. The peak, Zettler said, has now passed.
The replacement of rotating hardware in aging engines is a significant expense. Yet Zettler said there are also other areas of the engine that cause worries. These include fan ducts, pumps, and fuel controls. Will surprise problems crop up in these subsystems as time continues to go by? That is the kind of technical question the Aging Aircraft System Program Office has been set up to answer.
“I think they’ve got a great technical plan for the way ahead,” he said.
For the larger airframes, corrosion has become a problem. During E-3 AWACS aircraft upgrades, for example, maintainers discovered corrosion beneath the flight deck.
“It’s the unknowns that you find in the depot repair cycle that drive the time, and to some degree, drive the cost,” said Zettler.
One long-standing problem that has improved significantly in recent years is cannibalizations. Instances of removing parts from one aircraft to fix another have declined by about 15 to 20 percent from the high years of 1997 and 1998.
“I think we’re at about 11-and-a-half canns per 100 sorties,” Zettler said. “So I feel like we’ve made a significant dent in cannibalizations.”
Perhaps the biggest factor in the turnaround was full funding for spare parts. As recently as the beginning of 2001, Air Force Materiel Command had 610,000 parts on back order, per requests from field commands. That figure has now dropped to about 150,000.
“That [reflects] a huge increase in the availability of parts,” said Zettler.
But an increased retention rate for first-term airmen has also helped the cannibalization situation. Increased retention equals a more experienced workforce–which equals fewer cannibalizations due to misdiagnosis.
“If the troubleshooting isn’t really strong, then they may take out the wrong boxes and wind up cannibalizing until they get the right one fixed,” he said. “So it saves a lot of wear and tear [to have more experienced maintainers].”
Fewer cannibalizations, in turn, lead to increased morale and higher retention rates. It’s a self-reinforcing process: More parts equals less frustration for mechanics, which gives better retention, which equals a more skilled force, which equals fewer mistakes, which leads to more parts being available.
The cann problem appears as if it will stay under control for at least the next several years. The 2003 budget allocates sufficient funds to parts, and the 2004 budget looks promising in this regard.
“I think we’re past the crisis point here but we need to pay careful attention to it,” said Zettler.
One way the Air Force is trying to ensure it doesn’t return to the darker days of the past is through a reinvigorated hangar queen program.
For years, official service policy has been that no aircraft should spend so much time on the ground because of parts removal that it becomes a grounded hangar queen. Recently, however, Air Force leadership has decided to go back to an enforceable hangar queen program that is standardized among all commands.
Aircraft that have not been flown in 30 days have to be reported to major command headquarters. After 60 days the airframe will become a Category 2 hangar queen. After 90 days, well, “somebody needs to be taking charge,” said Zettler.
In recent years, the Air Force’s depot policies and procedures have come in for criticism from some lawmakers. They charge that the Air Force, either intentionally or through poor management, has moved too much work from government facilities to private contractors.
Indeed, in both Fiscal 2000 and 2001, the Air Force leadership has waived certain requirements that preclude the service from contracting out more than 50 percent of its workload. Reminded that Congress watches this issue closely, Zettler noted that “we watch it closer.”
The Air Force did not need such a waiver in 2002, he pointed out. Things look similarly in hand for 2003.
“On the books right now, it looks like we’re in pretty good shape,” said Zettler.
A much-anticipated long-term depot maintenance plan was recently delivered to Congress. It outlines how the Air Force intends to handle each weapon in regards to maintenance and the depots. Addendums lay out master plans for each of the three gigantic air logistics centers.
“Secretary Roche is firmly committed to the depots,” said Zettler. “He believes that we should create three world-class depots. They are a vital part of our total industrial complex.”
The plan for the depots includes more money, a push to improve effectiveness via commercial practices, and better worker training programs.
“We’re talking about an approach that will elevate our depots to the next level of professionalism,” said Zettler.
At the same time there is enough work for the Air Force to maintain significant industry partnerships. Air Force leaders intend to continue to try to leverage the best of both the private and public worlds to get the greatest advantages they can for aircraft readiness.
Zettler said he believes that, after Congress sees how hard the Air Force is working on the 50-50 issue, it may cease to be such a major point of contention.
“The Air Force has a responsibility to live within the statute that Congress has given to us,” he said. “And I think that after we do that for a few years some of the emotion of the moment will be in abeyance.”
The bottom line is that the installations-logistics team of the Air Force is providing airpower readiness at a crucial time in US history. From the planners and supply and transportation people at one end, to the civil engineers, communications specialists, and others who make installations livable at the other, it is a team effort.
“We bring it all together,” concluded Zettler.
Peter Grier, a Washington, D.C., editor for the Christian Science Monitor, is a longtime defense correspondent and a contributing editor to Air Force Magazine. His most recent article, “Disorder in the Court,” appeared in the October 2002 issue.