Imagine that you’re stationed at an outpost deep in a conflict zone. Your MRAP’s alternator is busted and you’ve got a spare, but your mechanic tells you that she’ll void the warranty if you let her replace it. It’s either tow the whole thing out or let it sit there wasting space. That’s what American soldiers are up against these days.
This is the same right-to-repair issue that’s affecting farmers, iPhone tinkerers, and even regular old wrenchers across the country, but now it’s making it nearly impossible for our armed forces to do their jobs, and it’s likely the Pentagon’s fault too.
Back in November, Marine Captain Elle Ekman wrote an op-Ed in the New York Times attempting to draw attention to the challenges that mechanics across the American armed forces are facing with equipment that they aren’t allowed to fix.
Increasingly, Captain Ekman argues, the Department of Defence is signing procurement contracts for equipment from generators to trucks to MRAPs that not only cover the purchase of the vehicle but strict maintenance regimens as well. These contracts often place restrictions on the maintenance of the equipment, requiring manufacturer-affiliated contractors to perform maintenance and repair instead of enlisted soldiers.
These contracts, Captain Ekman continues, dramatically limit the ability of soldiers to stay properly equipped when on duty, whether they are deployed overseas or here at home.
Captain Ekman’s op-Ed accompanied a much more detailed letter that she submitted to the Federal Trade Commission. This letter goes into greater detail to describe the policy conditions that she believes allowed the military to sign these restrictive procurement contracts and the impact that specific contracts have had on the ability of the military to properly use the maintenance and repair resources it already has to service its equipment.
According to Captain Ekman, the problems began when legislators changed military procurement guidelines to give the military greater freedom to procure equipment and technologies that were designed for commercial use. These items would be exempt from many rules and regulations that govern bidding processes and contact negotiations that have long slowed military procurement.
When the Pentagon made these changes to allow the military to obtain more commercial equipment, it was allowed to negotiate for the rights to the data and literature necessary to enable servicemen and women to perform repairs and maintenance without the assistance of the manufacturer. In practice, though, the equipment purchased by the military has remained subject to the same restrictions as civilian equipment which poses unique challenges to the military:
“These restrictions, present in both commercial and non-commercial items and services, are particularly problematic in light of DOD’s mission. Many of the products and services purchased from contractors must be available in combat situations where contractor presence or reach-back for repairs, data, or diagnostics, will likely not be an option. Unfortunately, although DOD employs these contracted items to achieve our nation’s national security goals, an arena which is decidedly unrelated to the conventional commercial marketplace, DOD is restricted by the same challenges faced by other consumers, yet with farther-reaching effects.”
Captain Ekman goes on to point to two major equipment procurement projects that have demonstrated just how damaging these policies have been to the effectiveness of American military operations. These two programs, the MTVR, a medium-sized truck that replaced the Army’s M939 and the Marines’ M809 5-ton trucks, and the JLTV, which is among the vehicles that are currently coming into service to replace the HMMWV, or Humvee.
Both vehicles are built by the Wisconsin-based Oshkosh Corporation, a truck builder and military contractor, and though Oshkosh does manufacture civilian equipment like cement mixers and fire trucks, the models above are both intended for military use only. Despite that, the procurement contracts for these two systems retained service and warranty terms that gave the vendor total control over warranty repairs and the delegation of any support work to third-party contractors.
Captain Ekman does point out that one upside of these contracts is that trained military personnel may be freed up from vehicle maintenance duties for other purposes while contractors work on equipment, but she reminds readers that any such benefit is ultimately a liability under battlefield conditions where equipment is needed immediately and the vendor is unable to perform necessary work under fire.
Furthermore, Captain Ekman explains that some of the challenges facing soldiers and Marines in the field were more than just bureaucratic. The designs of the vehicles themselves made it difficult for mechanics to perform even the maintenance they were allowed to do. In her letter, Captain Ekman includes some anecdotes about the difficulty of maintaining the JLTV from a 2014 report that suggested that the challenges were as technical as they were contractual:
– “units [could not] maintain the JLTV without support from the contractor field service representatives due to vehicle complexity”;
– there were issues with “ineffective training, poor manuals, and challenges with troubleshooting the vehicle”;
– “the maintainer training was not effective and required additional familiarisation and hands-on time to increase the competency of military maintainers to troubleshoot the vehicle”; and
– “the health monitoring system [was] not accurate and [it] reduce[d] crew and maintainer confidence in the system.”
If servicemembers are losing faith in their ability to accurately assess issues with the equipment designed to keep them safe in war zones, their ability to fight will be severely impaired. If there are no contractors available to correctly use computerised vehicle status systems to diagnose and repair faults, soldiers could be going into battle with equipment that will not function properly and cannot be repaired.
It’s important to point out that while Captain Ekman makes the point that these pieces of equipment are unrepairable for warranty reasons, the military still retains a robust equipment maintenance program whose hands are tied. In other words, the capability to keep these vehicles moving is largely there, but it sits idle while contractors are paid to do the work.
That capability will fade away, though as military mechanics lose opportunities to build experience working on their equipment outside of the warzone. With contractors performing the work, these mechanics are not developing the necessary experience to use the resources at their disposal to keep equipment working when conditions are tougher. Even worse, those mechanics that do attempt to perform repairs on warrantied equipment have even found themselves reprimanded for their actions as unsanctioned repairs voided warranty support.
Now, all of this has a secondary effect that Captain Ekman doesn’t touch upon but which seems important to me: The impact of these policies on military mechanics’ post-service job prospects.
Both the Army National Guard and the Marines promote mechanic positions in their ranks as opportunities to build skills that will translate to careers back on the homefront. If you search online, countless websites describe the Marine MOS 3521 Automotive Maintenance Technician and Army National Guard 91B Wheeled Vehicle Mechanic positions are pathways to future jobs in the private sector. The National Guard says that working as a 91B:
“Will help prepare you for a career with service stations, auto dealers, farm equipment companies and state highway agencies. You’ll be able to pursue a career as a garage mechanic, carburetor mechanic, transmission mechanic, radiator mechanic, construction equipment mechanic or endless track vehicle mechanic.”
The US Marines website has an entire database of positions that are supposedly opportunities for former MOS 3521 and it makes sense. The same regulations that made it so difficult to repair the military’s vehicles also made them much more similar to what mechanics work on back at home.
All of that sounds great, but if soldiers and marines are not getting the on-the-job experience they need because of restrictions the procurement process has put on their ability to practice their craft and cultivate necessary skills, the prospect of post-service employment seems rather dimmer.
Of course, the private sector is where these warranties and maintenance contracts originated so perhaps the experience of navigating these restrictions and waiting for vendor approval or assistance will prove more useful than I might have thought, though one hardly needs to serve in the military to know how to hold the phone while a call centre pulls up your account, right?