U.S. Military Depots Seem Safe, But For How Long?

By Michael Bruno
Source: Aviation Week & Space Technology

According to the latest report from 2012, which was examined this year by congressional auditors, the Defense Department's overall planned workloads exceed its core capability requirements. But the military also faces work shortfalls approaching 1.4 million hr. in certain categories for the Army, mostly with ground combat vehicles, as well as for the Air Force. There, the armed service sees total workload shortfalls of about 404,000 hr. in communication and electronic equipment, namely unmanned air system (UAS) ground stations, and ordnance, weapons and missiles, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) examination. Moreover, the Air Force acknowledged to auditors additional workload shortfalls of about 64,000 hr. with some aircraft components.

Those work shortfalls—or excess depot capacity, depending on how one looks at it—has the MRO industry afraid and all but certain that as federal budgets tighten and lawmakers and others look to protect their bases and related jobs, work that has been outsourced to contractors will be brought back in-house (AW&ST April 29, p. 38). Indeed, from what USAF officials told the GAO, they are right to think so.

Air Force officials told the GAO that almost all the USAF workload shortfall stems from a lack of “organic” depot capability to repair ground stations for the anticipated increase in manufacturing of the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper UAVs, as well as their missile launchers and defensive systems. Contractors currently repair the aircraft—but to mitigate the shortfall, as congressionally required, the service will incrementally assign maintenance work to depots for the UAV ground stations through fiscal 2016 and for the other systems by 2017. New in-house work on other aircraft weapon systems, such as for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), also will be used to mitigate depot shortfalls, the Air Force told the GAO (see page 47).

Nevertheless, despite lower federal spending and increased cost pressures elsewhere, the Air Force will have to ramp up capital investments to do this MRO itself because it does not have the people or facilities necessary now, according to the GAO. Considering recent spending and authorization markups for 2014, as well as vociferous congressional lobbying of the Pentagon to exclude depot workers from defense furloughs, albeit unsuccessful, lawmakers apparently are not thinking twice in providing those funds.

“The quality of work that is performed in these facilities is unparalleled,” a bipartisan group of eight lawmakers from the House Depot Caucus wrote leading appropriators in both chambers of Congress last month. “We applaud you for including significant funding in support of the organic industrial base, including for depot maintenance, facilities modernization and mobilization capacity. We urge you to fund these accounts at the highest possible level in the final fiscal 2014 legislation.”

Furthermore, underscoring the point that depot workers should be retained over others, the caucus authored an amendment in July to the House's defense appropriations bill for the next fiscal year that would exclude roughly 180,000 workers, those paid through the Pentagon's self-funded five working capital accounts, from sequestration-related furloughs in 2014. Despite its political polarization, the House adopted the amendment by voice vote, indicating widespread agreement.

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