As the Army launches its latest modernization effort, Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville has made people the service’s No. 1 priority. Concurrently, the Army seeks to upgrade the equipment that supports its people. Both goals are laudable, but they won’t be sustainable unless the Army modernizes it maintenance systems.
While maintenance readiness has many facets, the key to doing it right involves the system of recording and reporting operational statuses. Although not a panacea for readiness ills, proper reporting is imperative to a sustainable maintenance solution. Evaluating the current reporting process and offering ideas to help improve the accuracy of the reporting could help Army leaders change maintenance culture and better assess readiness through random testing.
Maneuvers held at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California, are some of the world’s largest-scale continuous operations, employing a range of supporting equipment. Operations occur under harsh conditions with extended supply lines that put sustainment systems to the test. Models mimicking a 10-day maintenance challenge akin to maintenance challenges of large-scale ground combat operations show operational readiness rates devolving considerably. Commanders often find soldiers do not have functioning equipment that they need to perform at their best.
The tool for examining this, known as the Global Combat Support System-Army (GCSS-A) Equipment Status Report, uses a two-option system, either “not mission capable” or “fully mission capable,” for reporting readiness. Having not mission capable equipment means the material condition is such that it cannot perform at least one of its combat missions. Of special interest are a unit’s pacing items named in Army Regulation (AR) 220-1: Army Unit Status Reporting and Force Registration. Pacing items such as tanks, helicopters and artillery are platforms vital to a unit’s core competencies, and are subject to continuous monitoring management at all levels of command.
However, this two-choice reporting system gives commanders an inaccurate sense of the operational readiness rate. There are often other categories of functionality not reported within the system. Operators and mechanics may lag in identifying and troubleshooting equipment faults or broken communications equipment, preventing the accurate status input into the GCSS-A. As training exercises develop, the leader’s notebook or dry erase board, not the official report, becomes the most exact tool to assess combat power available for operations. A good planning factor is to expect a 10% difference between an official report and estimated actual operational readiness rate averages during 10 days of large-scale ground combat operations.
Maintenance of Army equipment relies on multiple modes of input and feedback. While the GCSS-A is a tool that integrates thousands of end items, repair parts, financial transactions and other sustainment functions, it is dependent on inputs at the user level. AR 750-1: Army Materiel Maintenance Policy consistently stresses reporting accuracy to give field commanders a true understanding of their capabilities to respond to the operational environment. However, observations at the National Training Center show the true readiness rate is lower than reported and suggests inaccurate reporting is the status quo.
U.S. Army War College professors Leonard Wong and Stephen Gerras described this dilemma in a 2015 survey of Army junior leaders, one of whom said: “I sat in a log synch and they’re like, ‘What’s your vehicle percentage?’ I said, ‘I’m at 90%.’ [But] if [anyone] told me to move them tomorrow, [I knew] they would all break.” [“Log synch” refers to a logistics synchronization meeting.]
What explains this underreporting? One reason is leaders may disregard the mechanisms established to ensure reporting standards. A second is that the reporting system is inadequate or cumbersome for fully describing maintenance status. Describing a piece of equipment as simply not mission capable or fully mission capable is unduly limiting to Army decision-makers. Inaccuracy in the current readiness reporting situation likely stems from a combination of impractical implementation and incentives for “good enough” reporting.
It Starts With Leaders
Army commanders at all levels must communicate the risks of underreporting to promote a culture of high readiness. The Army prioritizes financial and equipment support to units required to have the highest levels of readiness. However, commanders of units that are not the priority may still hold their units accountable to elevated levels and evaluate subordinates based on these standards.
Further, usage levels of many end items differ throughout the reporting period. A 2002 Rand Corp. study, “Diagnosing the Army’s Equipment Readiness,” identified this inconsistency, stating that “battalion-level rates vary broadly from month to month, mostly in direct relationship to the battalion training schedules, which dictate how much the equipment is used.” Despite the age of this report, the findings still ring true.
When describing maintenance standards, commanders should acknowledge and account for variance based on training schedules and the projected upcoming readiness cycle. Realistic guidance and expectations will help prioritize the unit’s efforts, create trust with subordinates and counter a culture of inaccurate reporting to make the numbers look better.
More descriptive quarterly guidance, including anticipated drops in equipment readiness correlated with collective training events and planned recovery periods, would better describe expectations to the organization. Issuing a blanket percentage goal creates false expectations of maintenance readiness.
Imagine this potential battalion commander’s training guidance: “During second quarter, the unit will complete collective gunnery training. Leaders and each crew should strive for ‘pass’ qualifications on their assigned combat vehicle. However, as third in our higher headquarters priority of support, anticipate a drop of pacing item readiness. Subordinates will sequentially correct this in the following quarter with semiannual services returning the fleet to [X] operational rate.”
Besides recommending a change in the culture of readiness, other methods will help fix the Army’s maintenance woes. Random maintenance testing is a good initial solution. Beyond the checkpoint-style inspections conducted at some installations, this would be a random examination, preferably controlled by a party external to the installation.
A random maintenance test program would begin maintenance audits that function like drug tests or deployment readiness exercises. Random and routine tests may be seen as onerous, but they discourage deceitful or inaccurate reporting and incentivize greater maintenance awareness. Reporting lapses may not always stem from malfeasance or apathy. A random maintenance test could help the unit see itself to uncover discrepancies in reporting, develop junior leaders and restore trust in the combat readiness of equipment.
Beyond verifying the functionality of pacing items, dispatching equipment for an enhanced road test will generate greater results. The inspection team concurrently would verify the functionality of equipment associated with the pacing item, such as battle command computers, radios, machine guns and mounts, and mine plows. Even if pacers are fully mission capable, this ancillary equipment makes the pacer lethal in a fight. One often hears the phrase “Can’t talk, can’t shoot” as a broad reference to the importance of holistic functionality.
External testing of an organization’s equipment and subsequent inspection team feedback enable important junior leader development in precisely the areas required to make Mission Command and other supporting systems operational. After-action reviews from the inspection team would help the chain of command report all deficiencies, order repair parts and ultimately be more combat ready.
Can the Army Change?
The Army recently enhanced its physical fitness and individual weapons qualification test to drive more robust preparation in these important aspects of soldiering. The same should happen for care of Army equipment. A random maintenance test would require high short-term investments. However, the risk in keeping the status quo perpetuates the same system that created the existing culture of maintenance problems. This culture leads to long-term dollar and readiness costs. Leaders, at echelon, must be armed with the truth, no matter how ugly it may be, to prepare their formations for war.
This solution would likely improve equipment readiness but would create other challenges. It creates both added administrative burdens and cost to those units selected to conduct the inspections. No doubt, these tests will yield outcomes that may be surprising to our leaders. Will they accept the results? Perceptions of decreased autonomy and trust throughout the force would require explanations from Army leaders. This increased dialogue will likely help create a shared understanding about the importance of readiness reporting and improve the maintenance culture.
Over the past 20 years, Rand studies of recent National Training Center rotations confirm that Army equipment readiness reporting does not match the true functionality of key pieces of combat equipment. Changing the culture might be the most intractable prescription, but getting it right eliminates other challenges. Random tests can help jump-start a cultural change and restore trust in readiness numbers.
In combination with other current modernization efforts, these changes will enable the Army to supply the most combat-ready equipment to its No. 1 priority—people.
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Lt. Col. Jeff Barta is a resident student at the U.S. Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania. Previously, he was a senior task force trainer at the National Training Center, Fort Irwin, California. An armor officer, he has led troopers at echelon from platoon through squadron while serving in armored, cavalry, air assault infantry and institutional training units.
Capt. Alexander Boroff is serving as an Army Joint Chiefs of Staff intern in the Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s Public Affairs Office, the Pentagon, and is a fellow at the Modern War Institute, U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York. An armor officer, he has commanded company formations in both the generating and operational force.
Capt. Austen Boroff is commander of Headquarters and Headquarters Battery, 2nd Infantry Division Artillery, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington. She is a field artillery officer.