Weakening Our Supply Chain: Considerations for Dispersed Basing Strategies

By: Christopher Jacobson

Approximate Reading Time: 8 minutes

Dispersed basing is the common strategy to counter future Anti Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) threats in the PACOM and EUCOM theaters. Both COCOMS are developing similar strategies but fail to recognize that sortie generation is already degraded by supply chain challenges at main operating bases. Dispersal operations that use remote locations away from main operating bases will increase future supply chain challenges and further reduce sortie generation capability in the next major contingency. One solution proposed in this article is a networked international supply chain. This article will use the PACOM Forward Arming and Refueling Point (FARP) concept and a EUCOM Untethered Operations (UTO) concept to justify why the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) should invest in an integrated DoD supply chain network and include US Allied nations to streamline supply chain solutions for future allied forces.

Over the Horizon (OTH) recently published an article discussing EUCOMs UTO concept. UTO is a dispersal strategy that is specific to the EUCOM theater. The 2012 article identifies Europe as an ideal location for dispersal operations due to numerous NATO nations with airfields that can support strike aircraft sortie generation. UTO also stresses that a four-ship fighter package must be supported by a single C-17 carrying all required support crew and equipment to launch a strike mission. The UTO concept defined sortie generation as fueling, weapons loading, and swapping aircrew. It did not consider the reality of aircraft malfunctions and required repair activities. In the OTH response, authors proposed multiple considerations for EUCOM planning, one of which was the consideration for failed aircraft launches. It is recommended that 100% sortie generation is not used as the planning factor and a future supply chain is considered in the planning for UTO operations.

In the Pacific Theater, Lt Col Robert Davis wrote an article for the October 2014 Air and Space Power Journal advocating for FARP operations in the Pacific. This was proposed as a more realistic and effective planning solution to achieve dispersal operations against the robust A2/AD network in the West Pacific Theater of Operations. The FARP concept relies on regeneration of aircraft without depending on fuel or logistics support from geographically separated main operating bases. Lt Col Davis admits that even under ideal FARP conditions the F-22 could only support three days of FARP operations with increasing degraded sortie generation due to limited availability of logistics support. An unsolved challenge to FARP operations would be recovering fighter aircraft unable to launch due to malfunction. The distances in the Pacific theater between Main Operating Bases is immense. Lt Col Davis suggests a solution is increasing readiness spares packages so aircraft have a higher chance of immediate repair at the FARP location. This solution is unrealistic due to the constraint of airlift support also being limited to a single C-17. Therefore, innovative supply chain solutions are required to enhance the effectiveness of both the FARP and UTO concepts.

Before recommending a future solution, we must address current supply chain challenges. In March 2018, students attending the Air Force Air Command and Staff College (Major Brett Flickinger and Major Austin Street) conducted a research project to determine if the USAF supply chain is insufficiently prepared for current posturing and future operating concepts. The study was based on current analysis of six operational squadrons with either F-16C/D and C-130J aircraft to compare aircraft availability with corresponding mission impaired capability awaiting parts (MICAP) requests and the fill rate for associated readiness spares kits. In other words, they analyzed the effectiveness of the USAF supply chain to rapidly source parts not available at a main operating base. The study identified the ten longest waiting MICAP requests over five fiscal years which totaled over 44,235 hours (F-16) and 42,345 hours (C-130) of non-mission capable aircraft time. The data showed that MICAP orders were requested but the supply chain was unable to deliver parts in a reasonable amount of time which resulted in a percentage of aircraft being unable to fly. The percentage of aircraft able to generate is associated as the unit’s readiness rate. Aircraft awaiting MICAP parts is directly linked to aircraft availability or the overall readiness rate.

OTH, multi-domain operations, emerging security environment

The USAF is not the only DoD component that is struggling to keep aircraft readiness rates at optimal levels. On September 17th, Defense News reported that Secretary of Defense James Mattis directed all service secretaries to increase overall fighter aircraft readiness rates to above 80% by the end of next fiscal year. In FY17, the USAF reported that only 71.3% of the fighter aircraft were flyable, a decrease from FY16. This decrease in readiness rate can be linked to lack of available parts which poses a challenge to the USAF supply chain. Aircraft readiness rates also impacts the USAF’s ability to conduct expeditionary operations. MICAP sourcing is a reflection on the supply chain’s ability to fill readiness spares packages that support a squadron’s ability to deploy and generate aircraft without Main Operating Base support. In 2015, when Aviano Air Base F-16s were tasked to rapidly deploy in support of Operation Odyssey Dawn, degraded readiness spares packages resulted in the unit deploying with only 80% combat capability. Associating aircraft readiness rates with USAF supply chain effectiveness is more complicated than one would assume.

Lack of available aircraft parts routinely results in base level compensation, where it is common to cannibalize parts off other available aircraft. Cannibalizing aircraft parts helps base level sortie generation which results in higher aircraft readiness rates but distorts the overall supply rate and the health of the supply chain system. The supply rate drives institutional changes managed by the 635th Supply Chain Operations Wing (SCOW) who is responsible for the USAF supply chain enterprise. The planners developing dispersal operation concepts are not considering the reality that part availability will limit a future fighter squadron’s ability to deploy to expeditionary airfields and conduct 100% sortie generation.

An innovative solution that will enhance dispersal operation concepts is to network the joint and international supply systems to increase part availability. Currently, the USAF uses a single supply system to view part availability and source available parts around the world. The Enterprise Supply System (ESS) only views USAF (including Guard/Reserve) supply warehouses, depot repair facilities, and the Aircraft Maintenance and Regeneration Group for compatible aircraft parts to source. If ESS had the availability to see available parts across the DoD, it would enhance part sourcing. There is already a precedent for this level of integration. An appealing benefit of the F-35 was a common aircraft platform across the DoD. On April 30th, Defense News reported that Lockheed Martin signed a $1.4 billion-dollar contract to provide sustainment for all F-35 sales to include international FMS sales. By contracting sustainment, Lockheed Martin is responsible for a universal supply chain for all nations using the F-35. It would be a missed opportunity if the Defense Logistics Agency did not use the Lockheed Martin supply chain as a case study to create a similar universal supply chain across the joint enterprise.

PACOM and EUCOM have linked dispersal operations strategies with the need for building partner capacity to strengthen strategic posturing against near peer advisories. Networked supply chain efforts could be a sub-tenet to building partner capacity with allied nations. The precedent for the DoD using an allied nation supply chain already exists. These arrangements are typically coordinated in advance for specific scenarios via an Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA). These agreements are common for joint exercises but are also written as long term mutually beneficial trade agreements. For example, USAFE awarded a five-year contract in December 2016 to Belgian aeronautical company Société Anonyme Belge de Constructions Aéronautiques (SABCA) for routine F-16 depot maintenance. USAFE F-16 units use the Belgium depot for routine scheduled maintenance in addition to an Air Force Materia Command managed depot in the US Future enterprise supply chain software could automate needed ACSA agreements to automatically compensate allied nations for reimbursement for sourced aircraft parts. Suitable substitutions based on part nomenclature is already an automated function in the USAF ESS system. Enterprise decision authority for the USAF would still reside with the 635 SCOW who could manually authorize allied nation sourcing after comparing transportation costs with the allied reimbursement expense.

An automated networked supply chain has direct correlation to the dispersal operations concept in both theaters. MICAPs are treated as high shipping priority in the DoD transportation system and, therefore, typically utilize airlift to be delivered. In this scenario theater airlift would be strained with supporting relocating fighter packages. Therefore, sourcing parts within theater and closer proximity to stranded aircraft is the optimal supply chain solution. Today’s building partner capacity efforts are focused on investing in allied airfield capabilities in both theaters. These efforts should also include investing in updated supply warehouse capability in critical locations. Supply chain analytics during future wargaming can also identify and stock components and parts that will be required at allied airfields. This will ensure a deployed maintenance repair team could quickly source a part and increase sortie generation for additional strikes. Reducing maintenance downtime for stranded aircraft will also decrease vulnerability for targeted locations in future conflicts.

In conclusion, dispersal operations are key strategies proposed for a future contingency with near peer adversaries in Europe and the Pacific. A reality is that aircraft readiness rates are decreasing because USAF supply chain is struggling to provide aircraft parts on aging airframes. This has resulted in reduced aircraft availability and limited the squadron’s ability to deploy to an expeditionary location. It is irrational to assume that dispersal operations will not be hindered by these supply chain challenges in the future. An optimal solution is investing in a networked supply chain that allows the 635 SCOW to source parts from joint components and allied nations. This enhanced supply chain network addresses the two challenges identified for supporting effective dispersal operations, aircraft part availability, and the tyranny of distance.

Chris Jacobson is a student at the Air Command and Staff College in the Multi Domain Operations Strategists program. He has more than 13 years of experience as a Logistics Readiness Officer serving in various assignments to include Logistics Readiness Squadrons, air transportation, and on the Headquarters Air Force staff. Email: christopher.jacobson@us.af.mil 

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. Government.

One thought on “Weakening Our Supply Chain: Considerations for Dispersed Basing Strategies

  • October 29, 2018 at 3:17 pm
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    Good stuff Chris. I disagree that micaps receive much of a higher priority in the transportation system when talking Mil Air though it is 999. Micaps receive high priority in the supply system. Once the micap is moving channel it is the same priority as the rest of the war. When we talk dispersed ops once we get beyond gas and go we need a much bigger logistics footprint. Wish we would look at more RND for developing say smaller munition that could be loaded with robots or by hand so they don’t take loaders and need a ton more airlift. Or aircraft parts made of more advanced material that can go more hours before breaking. The upfront costs might be exorbitant but perhaps it could save us in resupply. And all this is just the supply chain widgets. We also need to cross train our personnel to perform aerial port RFM fuels ground trans services airfield ops and SFS to lower the manpower required at these bases. I like what you highlight. These are big problems we need to get after.

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