A summary of a presentation I gave to the Savannah AIAA Section in April 2018. Click HERE to download the charts.
Perspective arrives at age 66.
I am retired and I am enjoying the opportunity to go around the country to speak to various groups, telling my stories and imparting knowledge gained from those experiences.
(How many senior citizens have an audience for their stories? How lucky I am!)
If you look at my career summary above, perhaps you can see why I refer to myself as a “retired cold warrior”. Unlike my Dad and Uncle, who fought in WWII, my war was the sort where I spent a career NOT getting shot at.
Yes, I am pretty happy about this.
With several advanced degrees, I fit well into the paradigm of outmaneuvering the Cold War enemy with American technology. I flew an advanced KC-135Q (air refueling tanker) outfitted with special secret squirrel equipment to support the SR-71 Spy Plane in its efforts to discern what the enemy was up to. In my next assignment, I was the Software Systems Chief for the USAF for a space booster that could loft spy satellites to do the same. And when I took on my next major challenge, I was at the front lines of the Cold War, helping to keep out nation’s ICBM fleet a viable deterrent. We supported the mission by knowing how to keep the trailing edge of technology viable.
One theme throughout these 3 careers was complex system sustainment.
In the first assignment, I was a pilot, but I was really a spy. Sure, I only flew the tankers that resupplied spy planes in flight. But the mission I supported, the mission I was dedicated to, was spying. I was a spy just as much as the SR-71 pilot, his support sensor crews, his Lockheed and USAF engineers, maintenance crews, and all the rest.
As a operator of an advanced weapon system, I was impressed with the vast support structure that existed to keep the tankers and spy planes flying and ready to fly. There were the aircraft and their immediate maintenance and flight crews. There were tons of documents supporting both those crews. There were staffs around the world to support the mission planning and missions. There were repair depots and USAF, Boeing, and Lockheed experts on hand to deal with issues in both support and operations. There were countless suppliers and vendors around the country.
Frankly, I found it overwhelming to completely understand and tally all the support that was out there enabling me to jump into my aircraft and slip the surly bonds of Earth. But I was part of a larger mission: figure out what our adversaries were up to. And to do that mission, we needed an SR-71 and all its support and the tankers and all their support because the SR-71 could only achieve its record-breaking speeds if it could get its fuel in the air.
Lesson 1: Define your mission. Define your system. What are all the parts required to meet the mission?
Next assignment, I found myself in a completely different environment. We were completing the development of a highly advanced, autonomous robot that could take a 5,000 pound spacecraft to an orbit 22,000 miles above the Earth. I was the USAF’s software systems manager.
My experience was completing the development and supporting the first few sorties, before I moved on to my next job. There was absolutely no sustainment component in anything we were doing. It was all about the next few missions. In fact, each IUS was built with some idea that the mission would be there for it.
Yet there were lessons for sustainment here as well. Each copy of the IUS was 99% the same as the previous. Very few changes occurred from one to the next and they were driven by either faults found or new missions parameters. The IUS was built with software that could adapt to nearly any mission change by a simple tweak of a special data file carried on board. Changes could also occur in flight rules. Hardware changes were expensive and minimal. The last sortie flew in 2004. In retrospect, looking at the history of 24 sorties, should a complex system such as the IUS been placed into a sustainment phase somewhere along the line? (See illustration below listing the missions. I cut, pasted, and edited this from wikipedia.)
Put another way, what makes this complex system’s life different from most weapon systems in the USAF inventory? Why did it never have a sustainment phase?
But wait. Just because it was never formally transferred to Air Force Logistics Command, the home of the sustainers, did that mean sustainment actions were never taken? Surely the program office and contractor dealt with diminishing vendors. They had to have taken their experiences and knowledge of previous sorties to help determine the probability of success of the next one. They had to deal with mods demanded by the operators. They had to husband the unique knowledge of the system over two decades to ensure important information about the system was not lost.
There were any number of things this “development” program office did that any good sustainment organization does. Some of that knowledge was compiled during my time on the job. I was a software manager, but was I also somewhat of a sustainer?
Lesson 2: Often sustainment is not called sustainment and not recognized as sustainment.
The first assignments lasted 4 1/2 and 3 years. My next assignment lasted 29 (with a 4 year break in the middle to support the USAF full time at PACOM). It was in this assignment that I really started to see sustainment as an art to be learned using all the science I could employ to support the task.
The web site that this post appears on contains my accumulated knowledge of this art. I add to it all the time, trying my best to pass along these processes. The Complex System Sustainment Management Model is a convenient, simple, and easily remembered hanger upon which to place all of these approaches and processes.
Lesson 3: Approach sustainment as its own career field that requires the talents of everyone.
Engineers, supply sergeants, executive decision makers, project managers, operators, repair techs, and many more are all sustainers. Just as I was a pilot fulfilling a mission to spy on our adversaries, your particular job code is important, but not as important as being a great sustainer supporting your complex system’s mission.