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Overseas Drawdown Shifts Army Electronics Maintenance

April 1, 2013
By Robert K. Ackerman
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  • A U.S. Army soldier communicates inside his vehicle during the Army's Network Integration Evaluation (NIE) 12.2 in spring 2012.
     A U.S. Army soldier communicates inside his vehicle during the Army's Network Integration Evaluation (NIE) 12.2 in spring 2012.
  • Soldiers set up very small aperture (VSAT) communications in Southwest Asia. The return of the Army from overseas combat will require a new way of providing communications support, especially for the commercial technologies that have entered the force.
     Soldiers set up very small aperture (VSAT) communications in Southwest Asia. The return of the Army from overseas combat will require a new way of providing communications support, especially for the commercial technologies that have entered the force.

Force support will change with both stateside relocation and a new way of functioning.

Support to the U.S. Army warfighter’s communications and electronics assets will be taking a new direction as the Army redeploys back to the United States following more than a decade of combat deployments in Southwest Asia. Years of field maintenance will transition to base support, and the many commercial devices incorporated into battlefield operations will require a new approach to service and sustainment.

At the heart of these efforts is the Logistics and Readiness Center (LRC) based at the Army’s Communications-Electronics Command (CECOM), Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. The LRC is drafting a new structure for communications-electronics support that takes into account the new mission realities of home deployment and reduced resources.

Yet, even with the efficiencies that planners hope to achieve with the new structure, the center will be forced to cut back on much of its support. Some missions will need to be abandoned completely for lack of funding or available personnel.

Jim Risley, associate director for operations at the LRC, explains that it serves as the focal point for field support to the command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) community. In addition to in-house assets, the LRC also has a presence supporting the Army, and in some cases the other services, in the field. Under the subordinate Army Sustainment Command (ASC) within the Army Materiel Command, the LRC has a presence within ASC support brigades. CECOM provides each of those support brigades with a senior command representative who serves above logistics assistance representatives (LARs). These LARs provide solutions to logistical or maintenance questions, Risley says. Also serving under the command representative are electronics sustainment support centers, or ESSCs, that provide a focal point for support with items that require a greater degree of maintenance within the units.

“We are looking at refocusing these efforts because, through the Global War on Terrorism, there had been a great emphasis and desire—because of time factors and what needed to be provided to units in the field who are in harm’s way—on contractors,” Risley allows. “As we now move toward the end of this current phase [of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq], we are restructuring along with the rest of the Army.”

This back-to-basics move in the postwar environment represents a new way of dealing with electronics maintenance. Gary H. Salomon, associate center director for programs at the LRC, explains that the center is developing a new structure for field support on the ground. It will be based regionally around the Army field support brigades in both the continental United States and overseas.

“We’ve grown it [the current support structure] over the past dozen years because of wartime needs, but now as we go back into the peacetime garrison environment we will have to right-size that,” Salomon says. The LRC is taking a bottom-up approach to determining the real requirements based on Army operations in the future. This effort encompasses the Software Engineering Center, Tobyhanna Army Depot and the LRC’s two primary program executive office (PEO) customers.

The long dwell time may help the LRC as it restructures field support, he continues. During deployments, units were receiving new technical capabilities at a high rate, and many of these involved non-program-of-record systems. Accordingly, expertise on care and maintenance was lacking among those units, which led to a greater emphasis on contractor support. Now, units transitioning into a peacetime rotation will not be receiving as many non-program systems, so the LRC will be able to provide support methodically over a period of time.

In some ways, regional theater support is more efficient and more on-call than support in the United States. Some lessons learned from the past decade of warfighter support will be applied to the future structure. For example, the LRC is training to be scalable in the same manner as mobilizing a standing force. This will remove the need for filling a surge capability with contractors, Salomon says.

“We’ve learned some things about putting new capability out there,” he continues. “We can do it better than we did before with a little bit more attention paid toward the sustainment of [support] as opposed to ‘throw capability out there and hope for the best and [play] catch up logistics—and then send out a shadow army of contractors to help operate the gear.’ There are better ways of doing it that we’ve learned over the past dozen years that we can build into the life-cycle planning.” The aim is to have methods and training packages in place with information readily available for personnel.

“We will move to a structure that we feel will be both effective and efficient,” Salomon states.

The influx of commercial mobile devices into the force has changed the way the LRC supports warfighting elements. While conceding that these commercial systems have posed a problem, Salomon says the focus is on sustaining the capability, and these devices are backed by commercial suppliers.

“At the end of the day, a strategy will be developed that ought to be as cost-effective as possible in terms of how you engage those suppliers—and how you engage the enduring infrastructure of the Army to handle that,” he says.

Problems arose because of the urgency of deployment, Salomon continues. Not enough thought was given to the strategy of sustainment, and it proved more expedient to tell the commercial supplier that it was responsible for providing end-to-end support. While that works when resources are available, it also is possible to establish a long-term strategy for sustainment that is enduring, efficient and effective. He notes that Tobyhanna Army Depot has developed partnerships with commercial suppliers to be a warranty repair site, and that capability has been extended to field locations (SIGNAL Magazine, February 2013, “Depot Service …”).

Another issue is that many systems that were implemented quickly never were intended to last. But, now they have taken on a long-term status and have become established in the force. The LRC has had to adjust to these ad-hoc capabilities evolving into enduring systems.

“We’ve been busy over the past few years playing catch-up on a lot of systems,” Salomon relates.

Some of these capabilities may fade into the background. Salomon points out that, where the philosophy for a dozen years had been “capability at all costs,” the pendulum now is swinging back to rethinking capabilities that may not be needed—or even are unsustainable—in this new era.

Part of the driving force for this approach is that, as with all military activities, these multifaceted efforts must be achieved amid limited resources. Pamela Delaine, associate director for resources at the LRC, notes that the center is facing shrinking budgets and personnel challenges.

The Base Closure and Realignment (BRAC) move into Aberdeen is one source of those challenges. Delaine notes that planners expected that 30 percent to 40 percent of the personnel at previous locations would complete the move to Aberdeen. Instead, nearly 70 percent came with the command. Accordingly, CECOM faced limits on hiring imposed by the commander. Retirement incentives led to more departures, but space still must be made for personnel who are supporting missions in Southwest Asia.

The budget squeeze is forcing the LRC to establish priorities for missions. Rather than cut back on support across the board, the center must determine which missions it no longer can support because it lacks sufficient funding, Delaine states. The LRC is establishing those priorities, which will be the key to its ability to operate, in conjunction with other Army officials. The Army will have to decide which LRC programs no longer will be funded, Delaine explains.

Salomon points out that much of the LRC support is directed at non-program-of-record systems, so they are likely candidates for the chopping block. The LRC will be responsible for a smaller number of different types of systems. Delaine adds that, as supplemental funding disappears, then programs of record will be the only requirements that are funded.

The decision points will include critical factors in terms of balancing cost, capability and strategy. “As resources diminish, we’re going to have to be smarter,” Salomon asserts. “We’re not going to have money to throw at the problem any more.”

And support for those programs cannot be open-ended. “Once you determine cradle to grave, what is the grave and how long is that life cycle going to be?” Delaine asks. “That will determine your strategy.”

The strategy issue comes full circle to the personnel challenge. Many LRC civilians were hired exclusively to support overseas programs, which now are coming to an end. With the force drawdowns, the LRC will find itself with an excess of personnel. Delaine reports that the command anticipated these drawdowns and has begun measures that will position it to respond to the coming changes, especially in terms of personnel reductions.

In terms of operations, the LRC is looking to increase emphasis on proving system reliability—reducing system operating costs while bringing failure rates down. Decisions will be more analytically driven and will include cost factors. “Maintaining reliability as a huge factor will receive more emphasis as resources diminish,” Salomon says.

The Army force generation model traditionally sent equipment into the field, after which it would be taken out of service for an overhaul within a six-month window and then returned to the troops in the field. So, a unit would receive its equipment fully up to speed twice every two years. But, that model already has been extended to fit a two-year model. The timeline for refurbishment of equipment is going to be extended.

“We are going to be maintaining equipment for longer periods of time and refresh it when we can,” Risley says.

Salomon elaborates that the Army will be returning to the way the Army is doctrinally designed to operate—“You do your cyclical repair and overhauls on a five-year cycle, you do a lot of home station repair maintenance as the doctrine says.” What will change is that the LRC will be making greater use of technological and analytical tools to operate better than in the past.

“It will be a more organically based sustainment,” he predicts. “We are going to have to leverage the infrastructure and the capabilities we have within the Army more so than depending on external sources of sustainment.”

 

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