The “Sustainment Phase” is a unique period in the life-cycle of a system. It starts as the system achieves initial operating capability and goes on until its demise. This period of time can be decades long.
It has its own unique requirements and approaches. To prove this point, let’s start with the Defense Acquisition University’s “Integrated Defense Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Life Cycle Management System” chart.
This chart is more than a little overwhelming. So let’s look at the breakout along the top of the chart. Here we see the 5 phases of a product life cycle: Material Solution Analysis, Technology Development, Engineering and Manufacturing Development, Production and Deployment, and Operations and Support.
I like this particular model because of its focus on the last phase of a system’s life as “operations and support”. Some other models will say the last phase is “sustainment and demilitarization”. Sadly, that model unintentionally implies that once deployment is completed, we can look forward to a short life and early death of the system. Whereas “operations and support” helps place the emphasis on sustainment as a method of long time support to operations.
Congruent with this idea is the philosophy that the warfighter’s goals and missions should be the sustainers’ goals and missions. Too often, the sustainer’s goals start with efficiency and end with economy. Understanding of the mission takes a distant last place.
With these concepts in mind, let’s mention a few examples of how the sustainment phase is uniquely different from any other life phase of a system.
“If you give me $10M today I can save you $1M each year from now on, OK?”
In the sustainment phase, this bargain is hardly ever accepted. Often, the precise “last day” of a system is murky. So decision-makers are not allowed to expect another 10+ years. If they are, the funds are critically needed this year for some crisis and are simply not available to bet on future paybacks. Many other circumstances tend to discourage spending now for future benefits. For instance, today’s program manager gets no praise or credit for savings when they occur. They are on to other assignments by then.
Attempts are made to allow for more long term planning via various performance based logistics arrangements. However, near-term thinking from the current program managers or their bosses can often put these contractual arrangements at risk. For instance, contracts that were expected to be long-standing are put up for renegotiations by a government agency under pressure to reap dollar savings today.
Often these forces can be brought to heel when a forward thinking sustainment team is considering tomorrow’s material solutions for today’s hardware, and perhaps even putting resources behind some technology development.
Hmmm. That sounds familiar.
‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”
The final word on any proposed sustainment risk (and suggested mitigation) is whether the system is going to perform its mission if the risk is realized. If the mission is at risk, it is a true sustainment risk.
Beyond this obvious statement, there is also the basic “facts-of-life” that nothing ever gets fixed early. This is simply good management. Just-in-time fixes are more economical since risks often become better understood over time. Also, funds are not as easy to find for anything other than top priority fixes.
In fact, sometimes low to medium risks are too easily pushed downstream to next year’s list of problems. But what if these risks actually have an earlier impact date than the so-called top risks? What if an entire subcomponent of the system gets systematically ignored, for instance, people? What if a low to medium risk accelerates in under a year to a top risk? In other words, mishandled prioritized lists of risks can create an ill-advised single-minded focus on the top few issues. But a backlog of unmitigated medium risks can have the same bad effects as one unmitigated highly-critical risk.
These factors, if not acknowledged and managed, can create a bow wave of medium risks that are suddenly realized all at once. Avoidance of this bow wave is critical and is accomplished by judicious decisions made in a timely manner with a holistic outlook. For instance, in all risks, consideration can be given to an immediate mitigation to take place now, as a long-range mitigation gets formulated. Keeping a holistic focus also brings in the practical considerations of production, deployment, and testing. In fact, an integrated schedule for production, deployment, and testing of risk mitigations must be created and managed if sustainment success is to be achieved.
Actually, it seems as if this entire long-rang planning approach can look a lot like the preparations that are made during the Engineering and Manufacturing Development phase for Production and Deployment.
“You want your stuff fixed economically, right?”
Turning you beloved system over to a repair depot can have disastrous consequences if the sustainer and depot are not on the same page. Depots, left to their own, must inevitably enact processes that improve repair efficiency. Unchecked, this leads to loss of data critical to the sustainer. Did the diagnostic confirm the field failure? What really wound up being fixed or replaced? Does the test equipment find all the existing faults? Are piece parts analyzed for emerging age effects? Answering these and other important sustainment questions costs money. Repair depots should not be expected to step up to this task without direction and resources.
The far-sighted sustainer will care more about detecting emerging failure modes in time to do something about them much more than they care about saving a few dollars on today’s repair bills. This is basically FRACAS, which usually occurs during production, moved over to a repair depot.
The best sustainers keep their eye on the ball. And the ball is supporting the warfighter’s mission today, and tomorrow. Second to that, a close second but second nonetheless, is costs.
To achieve this goal in the “Sustainment Phase”, it turns out that actions are taken to mitigate risks that look very much like Material Solution Analysis, Technology Development, Engineering and Manufacturing Development, Production and Deployment, and Operations and Support.
We started out with every good intention to give a few examples of how the “sustainment phase” of a product’s life cycle is different from any other life phase with its own uniqueness. And we seemed to have proven quite the opposite.
Maybe that’s why the Integrated Defense Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Life Cycle Management System chart doesn’t call the last phase a “sustainment phase”?