Nearly 200 military and civilian Airmen, community members, and industry leaders attended the Focus on Defense Symposium at the Eccles Conference Center in Ogden, Utah, June 15.
The event was sponsored by the Air Force Association and the theme was “Toward a More Agile Sustainment and Life Cycle Enterprise.”
During the event, Lt. Gen. Lee K. Levy II, Air Force Sustainment Center commander, spoke on the challenges facing the sustainment community
“As an Airman I can’t do, and my team can’t do, what we do without you,” Levy told the room of military and civilian Airmen and industry partners, whom he referred to as the “three-legs” of sustainment.
Levy said if he were to grade the sustainment community now, it would receive a B+, noting that higher marks are always a thing to strive for. He attributed the grade to a number of challenging issues facing modern aerospace sustainment. Overcoming these challenges will take partnerships, long-term contractual agreements, better pricing initiatives, employing new technologies and pulling small business into the fold.
Being an agile sustainment community is something military and industry partners should strive for because agility is key to supporting the warfighter in a world advancing quickly though modern technology.
“We are indeed an aerospace nation. We owe it to our (forebears) to not let them down. Aerospace is one of the foundations that has guaranteed our freedoms,” Levy said. “We’ve had virtually unmatched air and space power. Those days are drawing to an end. Our competitors, our peers are working very hard to close the gap…with 4th and 5th generation (aircraft) capabilities. We are losing our competitive advantage.”
A weapon system that takes 10 years to field or modify is not agile, Levy said. The key to speed and success lies in collaboration between military and industry who at times are competing, but should be striving for the same goal: national security.
The Air Force Sustainment Center employs more than 3,000 scientists and engineers and keeping the pipeline of qualified workers flowing is vital for sustainment.
“As a nation we have to do better with STEM education,” Levy said. He particularly emphasized the need for developing software capabilities through a strong workforce.
“Today when we think about sustainment, we think about aircraft – big metal objects. But tomorrow sustainment will look a lot like ones and zeros. It’s the software within our platforms. Our ability to modify and employ our software is going to determine if we win the next fight and adapt to the modern battle space.”
Sequestration is not a thing of the past. While there may no longer be furloughs and government shutdowns, the Department of Defense is still feeling the effects of the Budget Control Act.
Funding instability is directly tied to damaging the supply chain which took maintaining legacy aircraft to “a new level of difficulty.”
“Everything needs parts. It doesn’t matter if it’s a 30 cent gasket or a $30,000 black box,” Levy said.
Sequestration handcuffed the acquisitions community who could not purchase parts in advance and delivered for on-time weapon systems production at the logistics complexes.
Not only did the instability hurt production, but it also hurt relationships with private industry, Levy said. Most of aerospace industry partners view instability as risk. So they don’t bid on contracts or if they do, they raise the price of a deliverable.
An unstable funding stream drives an unstable parts stream which drives unstable sustainment and aircraft availability for the warfighter, Levy said.
Value of partnerships
Levy said that the aerospace community cannot solve these problems if they “hold each other at arm’s length.” To solve these problems it helps to be in the same room together, which is why events like the Focus on Defense Symposium are so valuable.
However, partnerships must be mutually beneficial to industry and the Air Force.
“What it doesn’t mean is all the flow of capital and intellectual property flows one direction. Those aren’t the partnerships I seek,” Levy said.
These partnerships must also harness the intellectual capability and agility found in small business, which often don’t have the bureaucratic red tape of larger organizations.
“Small business is the intellectual engine of a lot of what we do in DOD,” Levy said. “But, we make it quite difficult for small business to break into the defense space. If you’re a larger firm and you can pull in a smaller firm, I would encourage you to do that. Some of us are so big we can’t get out of our own way.
“It’s amazing to me how many small businesses and small business owners and employees tell me they have a great idea and they can’t get it in front of the people who make decisions. Thomas Edison failed something like 90 times before he got the light bulb to work. Now we’re so risk averse that if people fail once we say, ‘We don’t want you anymore.’”
Private industry will play a vital role as the Air Force prepares to begin programmed depot maintenance on the ICBM fleet, a fleet which will need to be sustained for decades to come as development on the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent system continues.
“As we prepare for PDM on ICBM weapons system…it’s a daunting task. Our nation’s nuclear deterrent has (helped guarantee) our freedom since the mid 1940s,” Levy said. “As we sustain that capability I’m going to need your help.”
Sustainment of the ICBM weapon system not only includes the missile, but also the launch facility, transportation and up to 18,000 parts that will be added to the cataloging system. Some of which have never been purchased before.
“I see real opportunities in the market space, whether that’s additive manufacturing, rapid prototyping or first article testing. We’re going to need a lot of support,” Levy said.
Levy encouraged the room to strive for success, noting that air, space, and cyber dominance plays a large role in securing the nation’s defense.