In the scheme of things, a system’s total life cycle management planning for sustainment as a post-production to retirement activity is a normal part of the cradle to grave design and fielding package(s). It involves ensuring there is, for example, adequate depot maintenance, sufficient spare inventory, technical service supervision and, often, a sufficiency of private sector repair and overall facilities until a system’s predicated retired. Unfortunately, technological and financial challenges surface within the DoD community when the useful life of systems is extended far beyond their date of planned obsolesces. Further complicating the issue is the fact that legacy systems remain in needed use during an era when the technological change cycle, in many instances, is 12 months or less and when the battle space has taken on asymmetrical cyber warfare characteristics.
The issue of aging systems is a major challenge for a number of reasons. It is, in most cases, not in the financial interest of industry to maintain obsolete systems and related inventory of spares for a diminishing number of items with questionable longevity. For industry to do so would place them at a competitive disadvantage at a time when the evolution of technology is becoming increasingly sophisticated, of shorter duration and more complex with each iteration.
New system and component technology is often more reliable, smaller, lighter in design and operates more efficiently than systems and components they are to replace. Therefore from a financial perspective, manufacturers will invest their time and resources in designing and building systems with advanced technologies for expanding sales opportunities rather than on supporting legacy systems that can, at anytime, be eliminated with the swipe of a Congressional pen. In addition, legacy systems and components may not play nicely with advanced replacement technologies. For legacy systems that have not been designed for the insertion and use of advance technologies (i.e. not having a common backplane) often experience interface and interoperability issues and have proven to be a major readiness challenge for the DoD community.
There are other issues associated with the rapid turnover of technology that continue to challenge the DoD community. The public marketplace expectations for innovative technologies, especially in software, often means that by the time a product reaches the end of its initial production run it is obsolete. Therefore, since the lifecycle use of the product is relatively short, industry has little, if any, incentive to invest in long-term product reliability. The burning question: why design in systems with long-term reliability and availability when a systems’ and/or equipments’ useful life will only be one production run? In short, it is not in the competitive financial interest of corporate America.
Unlike the public sector that has the resources and flexibility to purchase products as they role off the production line, DoD strategic, economic, and mission requirements prevent investing in and purchasing advanced technology repeatedly on a short time schedule. The DoD acquisition process has a series of reviews and safeguards tied to Congressional mandates that usually cause the purchase of systems/equipment to be deliberately slow. Equally important is the fact that the DoD is much larger and more complex than any one single corporate entity within the private sector. It is responsible for the training and equipping hundreds, if not thousands of troops, deployed worldwide in the use of new technologies. Introducing new replacement equipment into the Services every year or two would create a logistics and training nightmare that would potentially leave very few funds available to DoD for other defense priorities.
Twenty first century battlespace complexity and variation requires a mixed use of systems containing innovative technologies along with legacy systems. Laser and acoustic weapon systems, for example, often are required to reside in the same space and time as the fifty-caliber machine gun. In addition, the battle space terrain keeps shifting. It can simply be confined to a remote village in Africa under terrorist occupation or can include nation-state and asymmetrical challenges from land to sea, to air, to space to cyber, from urban to desert environments, to a dense jungle environment or a combination of all.
As current worldwide urban conflicts have demonstrated, conventional urban warfare frequently requires “boots on the ground” in close combat situations. The use of conventional legacy systems tends to remain the weapon systems in use under this condition. Rifles, tanks, mortars, grenades can seldom be substituted with drones, tactical nuclear weapons, laser guided missions, computer-cyber programs and other similar advanced technologies for many regional conflicts that are challenging the national security of the U.S. Certainly advanced technologies can and do play a much needed support role within the conventional battle space however, it is conventional systems, many which are legacy, in the hands of seasoned troops that win and hold territory. This scenario creates a huge sustainment challenge for the DoD. Under such unpredictable circumstances the end cost(s) of the logistic complexity and sustainability of legacy systems is potentially damaging to our national defense and economy.
Many of the legacy systems, by definition, continue to be used far beyond their designed intended useful life. The older these systems, the less reliable they become (they break down often), parts become scarce, the more costly it becomes for maintenance facilities, equipment repair and maintenance personnel, and from a War fighter perspective, the less confidence they have that the legacy systems will keep them out of harms way. The sustainment of obsolete systems can be costly in many ways, to include using taxpayer resources that can be put to better use in defense of our county.
The time has come for DoD to develop and implement a comprehensive life cycle sustainment policy that addresses such matters as cost and part obsolesces for both legacy systems and newer systems that eventually will pass beyond their intended design life. Essential legacy systems and critical parts have to be identified and supported until there is an established, well-planned date for their replacement. Contracts for new systems need to include robust provisions for sustainment. DoD needs to do a better job in anticipating what legacy and new systems will be needed in the present and future battle space and firm, insightful cost sustainment metrics have to be developed so that provisions for a long-term, life cycle sustainment budget can be established. To do otherwise, makes the sustainment of legacy systems cost prohibitive, impedes their replacement and consumes DoD limited resources that are needed to be used in other ways to confront the global defense challenges of this century.