Imagine you are an Army signal officer in the field with your unit on deployment. The mission is proceeding smoothly, but unexpectedly, your trailer-mounted Satellite Transportable Terminal flips over in a ditch. When you turn it on, you cannot acquire a satellite signal. The terminal is officially non-mission-capable.
The Satellite Transportable Terminal (STT) is critical to receive secure voice, video and data communications the unit needs to complete its mission. Without it, your command, control, communications, computers, cyber, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C5ISR) readiness is hamstrung.
In the past, your unit would have had to send the terminal to Tobyhanna Army Depot, Pennsylvania, the Army’s C5ISR repair, overhaul and logistics facility. Given the time involved to ship, repair and return, you would be down an STT or without one for months.
Instead, your unit receives a fresh, mission-capable STT within days, with little to no impact on mission readiness. Tobyhanna personnel repair the damaged terminal and place it into a pool of available systems, known as repair cycle floats. Repair cycle floats are fully mission-capable, ready-to-go pieces of equipment held as extra inventory. They are immediately available to issue as replacements if a unit’s system breaks down or needs overhaul or maintenance.
On the surface, this maintenance transaction replaced by a supply transaction seems simple. In reality, it is a transformational initiative by the U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Command (CECOM) to provide 100% readiness for C5ISR systems. And it has potential to revolutionize how the Army manages its fleet of major technology end items.
As a subordinate command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command, CECOM’s mission is to sustain established C5ISR systems—such as providing hardware upgrades, spare parts and software updates—after Army program executive offices field the assets. Repair cycle floats are one of CECOM’s largest efforts in its relentless focus on modernization, improving operational readiness and reducing the time units are without critical C5ISR platforms.
And because of the promise repair cycle floats have shown for C5ISR systems, Materiel Command is working to adopt the model across its life cycle management commands. The command’s goal is to provide Armywide materiel readiness and stabilize the workload for the entire organic industrial base, the Army’s network of depots and arsenals Materiel Command operates.
CECOM began pursuing repair cycle floats in earnest in fiscal 2017, after the Army adopted the Sustainable Readiness Model. The Army designed the model to not only meet immediate combatant commander demands for ready units, but also to sustain unit readiness in anticipation of the next mission.
Under the previous Army Force Generation model, units had six months or more to reset equipment following deployments or training. However, Sustainable Readiness guidelines reduced that to 90-day prepare modules to reconstitute units to full combat readiness.
In response to this heightened operational tempo, CECOM gave repair cycle floats a fresh look. In fact, they are not a new idea. Army regulations have permitted them for decades, but they have been historically difficult to implement. When the Army purchases major assets such as tanks, helicopters or satellite terminals, there usually is not money available for extra systems to use as floats that units will not receive immediately. And when commands have used floats in the past, a lack of codified processes led units to apply the floats to fill gaps in their regular inventory.
An effective float program is also dependent on units regularly turning in equipment in need of depot-level repair or overhaul, but units are often reluctant to do so because of long downtimes and their impact on readiness. Overcoming these challenges requires not only a change in funding and priorities, but also a shift in entrenched mindsets that repair cycle floats just do not work.
In fiscal 2017, the CECOM Integrated Logistics Support Center began prioritizing repair cycle floats in its five-year budget plan. It continued increasing this funding through fiscal 2021, doubling it from the previous fiscal year as a strategy to keep the industrial base warm and ensure a steady supply chain for assets it would use as floats.
The command chose the STT, the U.S. Army Forces Command’s highest-priority C5ISR system, as the asset with which it would create its initial floats in fiscal 2017. At the time, Tobyhanna Army Depot had access to more than 200 non-mission-capable STTs. Over the next year, it rebuilt dozens of them, creating enough float capacity so that today, they cycle through the depot and out to units up to three times a year. CECOM proved that with the right funding and processes, repair cycle floats are a viable readiness enabler.
Today, CECOM also creates floats among additional C5ISR systems, such as the Joint Network Node platform for remote satellite-based communications, high-capacity line-of-sight radios, the Secure Mobile Anti-Jam Reliable Tactical Terminal and even generators. In fiscal 2020, it plans to build 121 floats across nine systems.
Not all systems lend themselves to creating floats, and it is typically easier with older assets that have been in the supply chain longer. For newer systems, the Army must include floats in its acquisition objective at the time it acquires the system; otherwise, they are difficult to create. For example, in the latest fielding of the AN/TPQ-53, a cutting-edge counterfire radar, CECOM received two extra systems to use as floats, but this is not typical. As part of its modernization efforts, CECOM is working closely with the assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology and the C5ISR program executive offices to identify and pay for new float systems upfront.
Identifying defielded or excess inventory to use for floats is another important priority for Tobyhanna and the Integrated Logistics Support Center. And, like with the STT, opportunities have popped up. For example, the Army is piloting Expeditionary Signal Battalions-Enhanced, which are smaller, more modular signal units carrying lighter equipment sets.
As these battalions become more established, CECOM is looking to harvest legacy equipment they previously carried, such as systems used in the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical. While the Army is beginning to field its new Integrated Tactical Network in two-year capability-set increments as the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical’s eventual replacement, the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical remains an important backbone of Army tactical communications that CECOM must sustain.
To change mindsets about repair cycle floats, it is critical to tie the effort directly to Army readiness. A simple calculation shows their value. In a program with 10 float systems and a 100-day average repair cycle time, which is typical for a major C5ISR platform, the effort returns 1,000 days of potential readiness back to units. This represents the avoided downtime the unit would otherwise be waiting for the depot to restore and return the system.
However, truly quantifying the impact is difficult, because repair cycle floats are intended to not only replace broken systems, but also to prevent problems from happening in the first place. Some C5ISR assets may be mission-capable but in need of overhaul, with foreseeable breakdowns one or two years down the road. Floats enable CECOM to swap these systems out early, before they break down, and give them preventive maintenance and overhaul without sacrificing unit C5ISR readiness.
In the past, convincing units to turn in functional systems for preventive maintenance was challenging when all CECOM could promise was the avoidance of potential problems in the future. Sweetening the deal with the immediate issuance of a float replacement is critical to assure units that CECOM is keeping their C5ISR readiness intact. CECOM also is working with Materiel Command to better quantify repair cycle floats’ tangible impact to readiness.
A complementary CECOM modernization effort enables the repair cycle float strategy: depot maintenance forward capabilities. CECOM established two depot maintenance forward facilities, in Korea and Germany, in fiscal 2018, and at three continental U.S. locations in fiscal 2019. These facilities bring depot-level repair and overhaul capabilities closer to where units are stationed, reducing asset transportation times and periods units are without critical C5ISR systems.
When C5ISR assets come into depot maintenance forward facilities, personnel assess whether they can fix or restore the equipment on-site or if they must send the system back to Tobyhanna. They work in tandem with C5ISR Life Cycle Analysis Teams. These experts work ever farther forward, with units in the field, to identify systems in need of depot-level overhaul or excess platforms the command could use as floats.
As the Army prepares for a return to large-scale combat operations, depot maintenance forward facilities would also play an important role as triage stations for battle-damaged C5ISR equipment. CECOM would pre-position floats at the depot maintenance forward sites to be immediately available to issue, rather than making units conduct lateral transfers of mission-capable equipment to other units, thus degrading their own readiness. With repair cycle floats, all units remain ready all the time.
CECOM’s repair cycle float initiative shows why it is critical to challenge assumptions as the Army prepares to fight and win a complex, 21st century, multidomain conflict. As endorsed by Materiel Command senior leadership, a concept that was once mostly relegated to the Army dustbin represents Materiel Command’s primary strategy to enable materiel readiness and bring stability for the organic industrial base.
Because the Army’s depots and arsenals effectively function as independent, government-owned businesses, they depend on predictable workloads to maintain consistent operations. Using repair cycle floats allows them to schedule overhaul and repair processes with more fidelity and assurance that units will turn in systems for overhaul as planned. Units, in turn, can operate with similar assurance that they will not be without critical equipment for long. At CECOM, Tobyhanna and the Integrated Logistics Support Center work together to maintain and optimize the production schedule, float issuance and unit turn-in, a process known as asset management.
Still, there is much more work to do. While CECOM has had success with C5ISR floats, implementing repair cycle floats with larger, more expensive platforms like tanks and helicopters brings its own challenges in a resource-constrained environment. Making them a reality across the Army will require a coordinated effort among Army headquarters, Materiel Command, program executive offices and the acquisition community, equipment manufacturers, Army service component commands and others.
It also will require funding more assets in the Army acquisition objective, as well as require convincing skeptical commanders about the value of turning in functional systems early to avoid potentially worse problems later on.
The path ahead will not be easy, but there is no organization in the world more determined or with a greater modernization imperative than the Army. CECOM is confident that repair cycle floats can and will be a critical enabler of the Army of 2028, providing soldiers with the consistent materiel readiness they need to successfully defend the nation against any adversary, under any contested conditions, on any battlefield. We owe our brave men and women in uniform nothing less.