U.S. armed forces: making equipment readiness a top priority
Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Mark A. Milley has consistently stressed three priorities since he assumed the Army's top position in 2015: personnel readiness, training readiness, and equipment readiness.
Mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicles are staged for issue at an Army Prepositioned Stocks-5 remote lot on June 27, 2018, at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait. The vehicles are part of APS-5's armored brigade combat team equipment set. (Photo Credit: Justin Graff)
As the executive agent for ground forces in the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) area of responsibility (AOR), U.S. Army Central (ARCENT) has undertaken several initiatives designed to meet these three priorities while balancing the urgent requirements of the CENTCOM commander. Equipment readiness for meeting today's contingency requirements is one area that ARCENT has identified as a priority in the near term. Lt. Col. Michael Mai and Chief Warrant Officer 4 Melanie M. Harris explain.
"By, With, and Through," the operational approach designed by ARCENT commanding general Lt. Gen. Michael X. Garrett and presented at the 2017 Association of the U.S. Army Annual Meeting, discusses how employing partner maneuver forces with the support of U.S. enabling forces requires an approach to sustainment that is not supported by current modified table of organization and equipment structures.
Adherence to this approach finds U.S. forces task-organized and deployed in small, non-doctrinal packages across joint operations areas (JOAs) to austere locations among nonorganic formations, often without habitual and doctrinal sources of support.
In today's complex geostrategic environment in which contingency operations compete for resources to prepare for today's rivalry between near-peer competitors, this is how business is conducted. The existing set of theater-provided equipment (TPE) has played a pivotal role in this approach, but the current model fails to adequately maximize warfighting capability from a readiness, cost, or accountability approach. The solution to mollify this shortfall is to establish a modernized enduring equipment set (E2S).
Generally, an E2S, like those that exist in Korea and Europe, is TPE that fits a defined unit and command structure, varying only slightly from one rotation to the next. It includes an authorization document that provides dedicated funding for maintenance and modernization.
ARCENT currently has only TPE (with no authorization document), which has the benefits of maintaining theater-unique equipment (armored heavy equipment transporters [HETs] for instance), and supporting equipment structures that the "By, With, and Through" approach requires. Units rotating to the CENTCOM AOR are equipped for the way they are doctrinally structured to fight, rather than for the way they actually fight, which is often as small groups distributed across the battlefield.
An E2S will correct this approach and save equipment transportation costs, reduce time in transit for units, and provide an authorization document for dedicated funding. The ARCENT E2S will keep a portion of the existing TPE, making it the long-lasting solution necessary for operations in the CENTCOM AOR.
A theater-provided equipment (TPE) refresher
Any soldier who has completed a tour in the CENTCOM AOR over the past 17 years of war has likely used a mix of organic unit equipment and TPE, which is a set of rolling and non-rolling stock accounted for by the Army Materiel Command (AMC). TPE consists of everything from mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles (MRAPs) and Humvees to medical equipment, computer peripherals, gym equipment, and radios. Originally introduced as a way to minimize equipment disruptions between units rotating into and out of Iraq and Afghanistan, TPE sets have grown to include more than 155,000 pieces as recently as 2017.
ARCENT and AMC have varying responsibilities for TPE. AMC accounts for the equipment and issues it to units that have a validated need. Units that rotate to theater validate the ongoing requirement based on current operations, and ARCENT distributes the equipment to the point of need and provides funding to maintain equipment while it is with the unit.
This marriage of convenience between two large commands has performed satisfactorily but is starting to stretch the limits of the frequently cited project management axiom that states, "Fast, good, or cheap: pick two."
Considering this axiom as a basis to measure effectiveness, the presence of TPE has certainly enabled speed of operations, met warfighter requirements, and saved the Army hundreds of millions of dollars in shipping costs over time. Still, any equipment that has sustained near nonstop use for years on end, and which has not been modernized or reset, will experience significant degradation over time. Thus, the cost of maintaining TPE has continued to climb while readiness rates have suffered.
The problem with TPE
The current model for TPE is simply not sustainable. When Army leaders made the original decision to classify TPE as non-enduring more than a dozen years ago, it was based on the eventual removal of forces in the region. Clearly, this has not come to fruition, and the TPE model has evolved from a stopgap to an enduring set of equipment that is a fundamental calculation in any rotating unit's equipping plan.
For ARCENT, the distribution of materiel to some of the most difficult to reach and dangerous locations is the norm. Uncertainty in air, ground, and sea lines of communication demands an effective equipment posture that is constantly ready to support expeditionary forces.
Many TPE items are sourced through operational needs statements and from Army pre-positioned stocks (APS), although APS has not nearly fulfilled the requirements alone. APS-5, located in the CENTCOM AOR, is a unit set specifically configured for contingency war plans not tied to the existing fight. Committing too much APS-5 equipment degrades the Army's ability to deter potential adversaries.
TPE equipment not only fulfills warfighter requirements but also is used by sister services, coalition forces, and contractors as the joint and multinational force battles terrorist and insurgent elements across the AOR.
Maj. Gen. Flem B. "Donnie" Walker Jr., dual-hatted as the ARCENT deputy commanding general for sustainment and the 1st Theater Sustainment Command (TSC) commanding general, recognized that TPE in its current form is unable to adequately fill capability gaps for units on the ground and prioritized an effort to develop a comprehensive plan to build, authorize, and fund an E2S out of TPE to fill this void in the CENTCOM AOR.
"After several years of constant use supporting contingency operations, theater provided equipment readiness has degraded to the point that missions are impacted," Walker said. "Establishing an E2S allows us to improve our holistic management of equipment that remains in theater, improve its readiness and save money over the long term."
Equipment utilization varies greatly across the TPE set. Although every item is signed out nearly all of the time, some items are in use constantly and others depend on the mission at hand and the commander's priorities. Ascertaining this information has proven difficult, even with the introduction and fielding of the Global Combat Support System-Army (GCSS-Army).
Although GCSS-Army allows users to quickly aggregate and analyze large amounts of supply and maintenance data, there is a caveat: the ability to achieve this level of insight for unit sets depends on the authorization status of the fleet. TPE, even though it is managed through GCSS-Army, is not "authorized" on a table of distribution and allowances (TDA) and frequently shifts between different hand-receipt holders.
For instance, determining orders and maintenance statuses over time for items such as MRAPs that are part of a TPE set requires looking at each vehicle individually. Determining these statuses for high-dollar rolling stock and other low density pieces is achievable, but time-consuming. For 155,000 items across the TPE, it is nearly impossible.
While exploring a transition to E2S, and without the ability to look holistically across all fleets, ARCENT had to find other ways of assessing utilization. Anecdotally, ARCENT logisticians had a pretty good idea of what items were used the most and provided the most value to the end users, but they needed to further validate these assumptions through a data call. In the early stages of the project, the ARCENT G-4, the 1st TSC, and the 401st Army Field Support Brigade did just that.
This data call to units on the ground helped assess the value and state of readiness of all items in use. The 1st TSC and the 401st Army Field Support Brigade also looked at hand-receipt data to determine the categories of equipment most employed by rotating forces. From this data, ARCENT could prioritize the items necessary to induct into an E2S.
Because of this inability to look at maintenance costs and utilization across the fleet, TPE has suffered from a lack of life-cycle management and modernization. For example, during fiscal year 2017, HET readiness averaged well below 70 percent. Materials handling equipment suffered similarly dismal readiness rates.
A lack of ready engineering equipment has delayed construction projects and route clearance operations. The only way for ARCENT to mitigate the impacts of these critical vehicles being deadlined is to contract out to local vendors at significant cost.
Readiness rates for redeploying units can also be affected if TPE is not available on the front and back ends of rotations. Because transportation often takes 30 to 60 days, any organic unit equipment sent by ship cuts operations short in theater and also delays training at home station.
A recent after action review from the rotational armored brigade combat team supporting Operation Spartan Shield noted that having existing TPE equipment, such as machine guns, optics, and mounts, is critical to preventing these issues. Under the Sustainable Readiness Model and Objective T, units do not have the time after redeployment to wait for critical unit equipment to achieve Army readiness goals.
Logistics support vehicles are especially important components of the existing TPE. In the CENTCOM AOR, theater distribution is constant, and units do not have time to wait for organic materials handling equipment to load and unload materiel or for trucks to transport supplies across the battlefield.
Substituting contract vehicles is usually an option; however, secure, contracted capabilities may or may not be available depending on the location and threat level. An E2S scoped to the demand across the battlefield is the only way to ensure uninterrupted logistics support for the warfighter.
Due to the distributed nature of sustainment operations and the lack of visibility in GCSS-Army, it has been difficult for the 1st TSC to determine the cost to maintain the entire TPE set. Depending on where the equipment is located and how it came into theater, the responsibility to maintain the equipment may lie with ARCENT, AMC, or one of the program executive offices.
As the 1st TSC investigated the maintenance costs of the high-use, critical rolling stock, it became evident that the cost to maintain these items was far above the norm. Again, using HETs as an example, the average cost to maintain one HET in theater during fiscal year 2017 was $140,000, while maintaining each HET based in the continental United States cost less than $25,000 on average.
Many other classes of rolling stock showed similarly excessive maintenance costs, ranging anywhere from 200 to 700 percent of the average cost to maintain a similar item in the continental United States.
Transportation lead times and costs are another area in which an E2S will benefit the Army. A rotational armored brigade combat team can cost over $100 million to deploy and redeploy into Kuwait. Even moving APS-5 equipment from Qatar into Kuwait can cost millions of dollars.
Conversely, it is much less expensive to pack and export parts in containers to the point of need. Maintaining the E2S in theater and shipping items back only for major resets every few years is likely to save hundreds of millions of dollars based on current rates.
The next steps for E2S
After analyzing all of the costs, benefits, utilization, and criticality of the 155,000 TPE items, ARCENT and the 1st TSC looked across the set to determine which items were truly enduring in nature and needed a reset or modernization plan and which items were part of the Army's Master Divestiture List or were non-documentable, such as commercial-off-the-shelf items.
A large portion of TPE turned out to be automated data processing equipment like computers and monitors. Commercial-off-the-shelf items such as these are procured through the Computer Hardware Enterprise Software and Solutions website through guidance issued by the Army Chief Information Officer/G-6. These items were not considered for E2S.
Recognizing that there are equipment shortages across the Army, ARCENT also worked with AMC to help determine how and where TPE could be used to fill shortages across all three components, specifically within focused readiness units. AMC identified more than 13,000 pieces that met that criteria, but some of these items, like AN/TPQ-53 counterfire target acquisition radar systems, were too critical to transfer. After a thorough analysis, the 1st TSC and ARCENT agreed to release more than 9,500 pieces for redistribution across the Army to improve equipment readiness.
In the end, ARCENT and the 1st TSC identified more than 41,900 pieces of the original 155,000 for induction into the E2S. These pieces are located across the AOR: 49 percent in Afghanistan, 32 percent in Kuwait, and 19 percent in Iraq.
The set consists of critical force protection and surveillance assets, tactical vehicle platforms (MRAPs, towed and self-propelled howitzers, M88 recovery vehicles), logistics support and distribution vehicles (HETs, rough-terrain container handlers, forklifts, and tractor trucks), engineering and construction vehicles, and medical equipment.
Funding this reset and modernization effort is a multiyear process. ARCENT's $7 billion budget is more than 95 percent funded from the Overseas Contingency Operations fund, and TPE maintenance comprises hundreds of millions of dollars.
Overseas Contingency Operations funding is validated and approved through a slightly different process than base funding at the Headquarters, Department of the Army, and the Office of the Secretary of Defense. It historically has invited less scrutiny from Congress than base-funded programs. However, both Congress and the Office of Management and Budget continue to demand more information to justify the increasing costs of contingency operations.
Funding flows from authorizations; without an equipment TDA, it is nearly impossible to determine TPE costs. With an E2S, the Army will improve planning and oversight for this critical equipment and be able to justify the expense to the legislators writing the checks.
As Gen. Milley has stated on several occasions, "Equipment readiness is a critical component of overall unit readiness." Nowhere is that more true than in the CENTCOM AOR, where ARCENT continues to support four named operations. Although ARCENT and 1st TSC have already completed months on the project to assess TPE and identify items critical for future success, there is still a lot of work to do.
The request for authorization has been approved by the Army Deputy Chief of Staff, G-3/5/7. The Army Deputy Chief of Staff, G-8, Program Analysis and Evaluation office allocated reset and modernization funding in the Program Objective Memorandum 20-24 programming cycle. These dual lines of effort complement each other and are integral to delivering a modernized, sustainable equipment set that meets warfighter requirements in the near term and into the future.