By Lex, on Wed – February 16, 2005
Running naval aviation as a business.
About a year or so ago, the Navy’s Air Boss sprung a new term upon an amazed world: “cost-wise readiness . *” His goal was to change the culture of naval aviation from “(combat) readiness at any cost,” to the exactly the right amount of readiness, at the exact right time in the inter-deployment training cycle.
The Air Boss had a serious problem: All through the ’90s, when aviation budgets (like all military budgets) were under a rather hostile oversight regime, we planned from year to year to buy large numbers of replacement aircraft to maintain our fleet as aging machines, and those lost to operational causes (read: crashes) were stricken from the inventory. The out-year buys in the 5-year plan were huge, from 100-200 aircraft. But when that year came into fiscal execution, the actual purchase were miniscule – in some cases just enough to keep production lines hot until the next generation aircraft could be delivered. The savings from the aircraft not purchased were plowed into current readiness accounts (flying hours and spare parts). These accounts in turn were grossly underfunded as part of a deliberate (if questionable) choice by that generation’s leadership to maintain numbers of aircraft on carrier decks – never mind capability or really, requirement. The thinking went that naval aviation would remain credible so long as a certain number of strike capable aircraft went to sea – if we dropped below that number (no matter how hard it was to fly them, without gas or parts) we’d “lose face” in the world of joint warfare. This circular chasing of the flying program tail obviously resulted in organizational stress, as stateside squadrons were stripped of parts and flying hours to build up those on the tip of the spear – including those.
The problem was (and is) that all of those aircraft we didn’t purchase are not available to replace the ones bought and paid for during the Reagan years. As aircraft age, the cost of maintaining them goes ever higher. If we weren’t going to break the business in the next few years (and all of us believe that must not be allowed to happen, for the country’s sake), we had to attack costs now, in order to re-capitalize the air force. The net result was less flying, and fewer machines to fly in the here and now. Legacy airplanes like the S-3 Viking and the venerable F-14 Tomcat (when someone starts to call your jet “venerable,” it’s time to polish your resumé) were given an accelerated push on their way to the bone yard – which resulted in additional organizational stress as people were left to wonder what career was left to them, and where they might go.
And as you can maybe imagine, when that news hit the fleet, it went over like a fart in church. Junior officers, who after all, only live to fly, were outraged – airplanes had been expensive back when three-star admirals were flying single engine, single mission, single tail aircraft as lieutenants, and yet the leadership of their day had somehow found a way to pay for it. Now that current pilots were flying multi-mission, high task loaded strike fighters, they were expected to “do more with less,” or maybe “do the same with less,” and that maybe even do “less with less?” It didn’t make sense – at least at the emotional, YGTBSM level.
But the thing was that the old man had pretty good analysis of the costs of doing business the old way. And it was very hard to demonstrate the benefits.
You see, in the old days, when we were trying to figure out what the “right amount of flying” was, we picked a number like 30 hours per month, and agreed that would make us all as happy as pigs in soft mud. Thirty hours a month meant you flew every working day: Between pre-flight preparation, brief, execution and debrief, that was a minimum commitment of five hours in the working day. You had three left over to lead your folks, laugh and scratch with your pals and grab chow. It was… perfect.
Which made it a guilty pleasure, so we decided that after all, 25 hours per month would probably do. And in turn the Navy, in its wisdom, funded us at a figure slightly lower than that. Which at the end of the day we could all live with, because sometimes you still had a really good month. For example, if Joey’s wife had a baby, you’d maybe take his hops for him, while he was at home with the in-laws, showing he cared on the outside, but secretly fuming on the inside. Because someone was taking his hops.
Problem was (and is) that the green eye-shade people who work dollars and cents at the puzzle palace aren’t particularly blown away by arguments which started, “in my professional opinion.” Didn’t matter who you were. They weren’t impressed.
So the Air Boss took a program that was slowly breaking our backs, applied some controls to it to keep it under the budget line, rationalized it such that expenditures in resulted in readiness out, and sat back awaiting the grateful approbation of his community.
And waited. And waited some more.
I think he’s waiting still.
Because in our hearts we’re more warriors than businessmen. A lot of us could have been anything we wanted to be, but decided to skip high-paying careers in business in favor of bending a fighter around. It is an emotional choice more than a rational one, which makes it pretty hard to argue with us based on facts and analysis. But alas, that is where the argument must be made.
Some of us pointed out that running an organization dedicated to managing violence like a business left us competing with the mafia. The more sober minded pointed out that actual businesses, run by actual businessmen – with advanced degrees and everything! – fail all the time in this country. But that it was OK, because there was always a competitor waiting to step in and take over their accounts. Who, these folks wondered, would fill in for us, if we failed? The Coast Guard?
A great group of guys the Coast Guard, dedicated and professional – but they’ve got a different set of hardware, and different skill sets. We’ve got this little agreement with them: They don’t do JDAMs or Tomahawks, we don’t do navigational buoys and posse comitatus * . It seems to work, for all of us.
No. No losing. No points for second place in combat.
Which leaves the warrior class in the uncomfortable position of having to use the language of businessmen and accountants to justify acquiring the resources they need to succeed in combat – and having to answer questions like: What enemy? When? With what capability? What if I gave you just a little less?
This gets into decisions about “risk,” the kinds of decisions that businesses make all the time, but which warriors are loathe to make, knowing as they do that the costs of being wrong are measured in human lives and national prestige.
So there is, and ought to be, a creative tension between those who want the world on a platter, and those who have to pay for it. The Air Boss has a job to do, and has done it very well. If the warriors want to make their case, they’ll have to learn the language of the debate. They’ll have to learn to talk about risk, and quantify it in a way that means something at the combatant commander level. And be able to back up that assessment with rigorous analysis. Because without the analysis, you got nothing. And you can’t beat something with nothing.
Oh, yeah – the warriors have to do one other thing too:
They’ve got to keep their powder dry.
* 07-06-18 Links gone; no replacements found – Ed.