Even The American Military Is Struggling With Right-To-Repair

Illustration for article titled Even The American Military Is Struggling With Right-To-Repair
Photo: U.S. Marines

Imagine that you’re stationed at an outpost deep in a conflict zone. Your MRAP’s alternator is busted and you’ve got a spare, but your mechanic tells you that she’ll void the warranty if you let her replace it. It’s either tow the whole thing out or let it sit there wasting space. That’s what American servicemembers are up against these days.

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This is the same right-to-repair issue that’s affecting farmers, iPhone tinkerers, and even regular old wrenchers across the country, but now it’s making it nearly impossible for our armed forces to do their jobs, and it’s likely the Pentagon’s fault too.

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Back in November, Marine Captain Elle Ekman wrote an op-Ed in the New York Times attempting to draw attention to the challenges that mechanics across the American armed forces are facing with equipment that they aren’t allowed to fix.

Increasingly, Captain Ekman argues, the Department of Defense is signing procurement contracts for equipment from generators to trucks to MRAPs that not only cover the purchase of the vehicle but strict maintenance regimens as well. These contracts often place restrictions on the maintenance of the equipment, requiring manufacturer-affiliated contractors to perform maintenance and repair instead of enlisted Soldiers.

These contracts, Captain Ekman continues, dramatically limit the ability of Soldiers to stay properly equipped when on duty, whether they are deployed overseas or here at home.

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Captain Ekman’s op-Ed accompanied a much more detailed letter that she submitted to the Federal Trade Commission. This letter goes into greater detail to describe the policy conditions that she believes allowed the military to sign these restrictive procurement contracts and the impact that specific contracts have had on the ability of the military to properly use the maintenance and repair resources it already has to service its equipment.

According to Captain Ekman, the problems began when legislators changed military procurement guidelines to give the military greater freedom to procure equipment and technologies that were designed for commercial use. These items would be exempt from many rules and regulations that govern bidding processes and contact negotiations that have long slowed military procurement.

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When the Pentagon made these changes to allow the military to obtain more commercial equipment, it was allowed to negotiate for the rights to the data and literature necessary to enable servicemen and women to perform repairs and maintenance without the assistance of the manufacurer. In practice, though, the equipment purchased by the military has remained subject to the same restrictions as civilian equipment which poses unique challenges to the military:

“These restrictions, present in both commercial and non-commercial items and services, are particularly problematic in light of DOD’s mission. Many of the products and services purchased from contractors must be available in combat situations where contractor presence or reach-back for repairs, data, or diagnostics, will likely not be an option. Unfortunately, although DOD employs these contracted items to achieve our nation’s national security goals, an arena which is decidedly unrelated to the conventional commercial marketplace, DOD is restricted by the same challenges faced by other consumers, yet with farther-reaching effects.”

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Captain Ekman goes on to point to two major equipment procurement projects that have demonstrated just how damaging these policies have been to the effectiveness of American military operations. These two programs, the MTVR, a medium-sized truck that replaced the Army’s M939 and the Marines’ M809 5-ton trucks, and the JLTV, which is among the vehicles that are currently coming into service to replace the HMMWV, or Humvee.

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Both vehicles are built by the Wisconsin-based Oshkosh Corporation, a truck builder and military contractor, and though Oshkosh does manufacture civilian equipment like cement mixers and fire trucks, the models above are both intended for military use only. Despite that, the procurement contracts for these two systems retained service and warranty terms that gave the vendor total control over warranty repairs and the delegation of any support work to third-party contractors.

Captain Ekman does point out that one upside of these contracts is that trained military personnel may be freed up from vehicle maintenance duties for other purposes while contractors work on equipment, but she reminds readers that any such benefit is ultimately a liability under battlefield conditions where equipment is needed immediately and the vendor is unable to perform necessary work under fire.

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Up-armored MTVRs at Camp Pendleton, California
Up-armored MTVRs at Camp Pendleton, California
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Furthermore, Captain Ekman explains that some of the challenges facing Soldiers and Marines in the field were more than just bureaucratic. The designs of the vehicles themselves made it difficult for mechanics to perform even the maintenance they were allowed to do. In her letter, Captain Ekman includes some anecdotes about the difficulty of maintaining the JLTV from a 2014 report that suggested that the challenges were as technical as they were contractual:

- “units [could not] maintain the JLTV without support from the contractor field service representatives due to vehicle complexity”;

- there were issues with “ineffective training, poor manuals, and challenges with troubleshooting the vehicle”;

- “the maintainer training was not effective and required additional familiarization and hands-on time to increase the competency of military maintainers to troubleshoot the vehicle”; and

- “the health monitoring system [was] not accurate and [it] reduce[d] crew and maintainer confidence in the system.”

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If servicemembers are losing faith in their ability to accurately assess issues with the equipment designed to keep them safe in war zones, their ability to fight will be severely impaired. If there are no contractors available to correctly use computerized vehicle status systems to diagnose and repair faults, Soldiers could be going into battle with equipment that will not function properly and cannot be repaired.

The Oshkosh JLTV
The Oshkosh JLTV
Photo: U.S. Army Reserves
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It’s important to point out that while Captain Ekman makes the point that these pieces of equipment are unrepairable for warranty reasons, the military still retains a robust equipment maintenance program whose hands are tied. In other words, the capability to keep these vehicles moving is largely there, but it sits idle while contractors are paid to do the work.

That capability will fade away, though as military mechanics lose opportunities to build experience working on their equipment outside of the warzone. With contractors performing the work, these mechanics are not developing the necessary experience to use the resources at their disposal to keep equipment working when conditions are tougher. Even worse, those mechanics that do attempt to perform repairs on warrantied equipment have even found themselves reprimanded for their actions as unsanctioned repairs voided warranty support.

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Now, all of this has a secondary effect that Captain Ekman doesn’t touch upon but which seems important to me: The impact of these policies on military mechanics’ post-service job prospects.

Both the Army National Guard and the Marines promote mechanic positions in their ranks as opportunities to build skills that will translate to careers back on the homefront. If you search online, countless websites describe the Marine MOS 3521 Automotive Maintenance Technician and Army National Guard 91B Wheeled Vehicle Mechanic positions are pathways to future jobs in the private sector. The National Guard says that working as a 91B:

“Will help prepare you for a career with service stations, auto dealers, farm equipment companies and state highway agencies. You’ll be able to pursue a career as a garage mechanic, carburetor mechanic, transmission mechanic, radiator mechanic, construction equipment mechanic or endless track vehicle mechanic.”

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The US Marines website has an entire database of positions that are supposedly opportunities for former MOS 3521 and it makes sense. The same regulations that made it so difficult to repair the military’s vehicles also made them much more similar to what mechanics work on back at home.

All of that sounds great, but if Soldiers and Marines are not getting the on-the-job experience they need because of restrictions the procurement process has put on their ability to practice their craft and cultivate necessary skills, the prospect of post-service employment seems rather dimmer. Of course, the private sector is where these warranties and maintenance contracts originated so perhaps the experience of navigating these restrictions and waiting for vendor approval or assistance will prove more useful than I might have thought, though one hardly needs to serve in the military to know how to hold the phone while a call center pulls up your account, right?

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If you an active or retired serviceman or woman with experience with Right-To-Repair issues in the military, we would love to hear from you. Please feel free to share your experiences in the comments below or reach out to us at tips@jalopnik.com.

Max Finkel is a Weekend Contributor at Jalopnik.

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DISCUSSION

Hawkstrike6
Hawkstrike6

Good, fast, cheap — pick any two, or sometimes only one. Let me give you a perspective from someone who works inside the system.

This is a great illustration of the fundamental tensions in military acquisition, and one where the root of the (perceived) problem is almost entirely the DoD’s, and not fundamentally a “right to repair” issue.

The DoD or the services often want to go really fast to get something in the field. This often results in some or all of the following occurring: (1) we buy a commercial item, or near commercial item; (2) we want to field a system immediately, so we field it with contractor logistics support before the sustainment packages for use by service members (manuals, procedures, provisioning of the supply chain, training, etc) are fully developed; (3) we want to develop cheaply, so we don’t procure rights to the necessary technical data up front, when competitive pressures make tech data procurement cheapest and most practical — or because of speed we buy a sole source item and the manufacturer quite logically prices tech data out of reach (because 70% of a systems costs are in operations and sustainment — with a sole-source lock on a supply chain, many contractors can produce at a loss and make up their money in sustainment); (4) we change the concept of support for a system part way down the line, where the conditions have not been set for full organic DoD sustainment; or (5) the concept of support a unit in the field wants isn’t the concept of support the system was built or procured to. Let me touch each of these in turn.

(1) Commercial items. Buying off the shelf doesn’t give you right to others’ IP, unless you buy that too. For items shared with commercial applications you’ll almost never get that, or it will cost a lot — but we’ll often not be willing to buy the rights to that IP. The government has a lot of leverage early in a program where competitive pressure or government investment in design give it substantial rights, but we often don’t think about sustainment impacts — or more often, consider and reject them — in order to go fast or cheap.

(2) Interim CLS. The services each have very specific ways in which they want to lay out technical information (so it is standardized), train personnel, and procure spares. Often these are to very different standards than commercial items. A commercial technical manual might suffice, but service logisticians might require manuals to be converted to military format, breakout of parts to repair at lower levels rather than major assembles, etc — sometimes when that really isn’t even warranted. Developing sustainment packages for full organic sustainment (i.e. servicemember or government employees can troubleshoot, repair, and purchase spares all the way from the field level to the depot level) take a significant amount of time — 3-4 years for a typical automotive application, and we don’t typically start that until the production configuration for the vehicle is stable. But when we’re in a hurry we’ll put the system into the field when the vehicle is ready but not the sustainment package — and you end up relying on contractors to do the maintenance, or have partial sustainment packages with errors that are frustrating. Do CLS to get it out fast, or wait to field until the sustainment package is all in place — what do you want? Those are major service decisions. Should we have waited to put MRAPs in the field until a full sustainment package was available?

(3) Subsequent TDP development. As mentioned above, the government has the most leverage early in a program due to investment in development or competitive pressures making it more attractive for contractors to give government right to intellectual property needed to spare and support systems. If we fail to plan for sustainment at the beginning of a program, it shuts down options later — when we’re unwilling to pay the cost to acquire the rights to IP because at that point we’re often in a sole-source environment. Note that for JLTV, the government has full rights to the system — to the point that it is able to theoretically compete production of the vehicle on a build to print basis (whether it does that is a different decision). The sustainment issues quoted for JLTV from 2014 are from it’s limited user test — still in development, before production configurations locked or substantial logistics development began. Of course it would have the reported issues then. JLTV may have service training issues, but access to tech data isn’t really a problem.

(4) Changing concept of support. Sometimes the way a program starts isn’t how it ends up. The Army’s Stryker iis a great example. It was an interim system, intended to start being replaced by FCS in about 2008. In addition, it was initially concepted at a time when we were doing lots of peacekeeping ops plus logistics streamlining. So the concept was: don’t buy any tech data; we’ll just have the contractor buy the spares and perform the maintenance for the period of time it is interim. Made sense at the time. Time passes, FCS dies, Stryker is no longer interim, unit commanders decide they want a say in their maintenance budget rather than having the money taken away to pay the contractor ... so now we want “green” maintenance. Except we had not bought the tech data for the spares package, nor provisioned government technical manuals, nor built an MOS or a training pipeline for Stryker mechanics ... all of which takes time, and money, and is harder, longer, and more expensive to do after the fact. Oops. How certain are you at the start of an effort that the concept of sustainment is right?

(5) Disconnects in sustainment strategy. Unit priorities and service-level priorities often clash. About 20 years ago the services (or at least the Army) began transitioning from a four-level maintenance system to a two-level one. It eliminated intermediate maintenance levels to reduce a lot of force structure dedicated to repairing components forward, and essentially divided maintenance into field (troubleshoot and swap components) and national (repair evacuated components and overhaul). This allows fewer maintainers to repair more systems with less technical expertise — but it also means that forward repairs are more expensive at the unit level. A $3000 electronics box may fail because a $300 card inside goes bad; the unit would prefer to pay to replace the $300 card vs the $3000 box. But at the service level, having the training an infrastructure in place to have every unit replace the $300 card is more costly and slower than swap forward and repair higher (at service level, because of the way working capital is managed, the actual repairs are of the same value). So what looks like a huge problem to a maintenance officer down in a line unit is an example of the service reducing its overall cost of operation and prioritizing readiness over cost of repair.

In summary — most of the issues raised here go directly back to service priorities in sustainment strategies, tradeoffs in cost and schedule versus maintainability, changing priorities, and similar tensions.

We have met the enemy, and he is us.