Logistics: The Thin Red Supply Queue

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June 27, 2011: For the second time in three years, Britain has found itself with too small a stockpile of spare parts for its combat aircraft. This time it’s the new Typhoon jet fighters. For the last three months, eight of Britain's Typhoons have been operating over Libya. This has exhausted the supply of spare parts. So several Typhoons were taken out of service and are being picked apart to supply spares. The Royal Air Force put the Typhoon into service three years ago, and about 60 are now operational (less aircraft being cannibalized for spares.)

Three years ago, Britain had the same problem keeping eight AH-64 Apache helicopter gunships operating in Afghanistan. The parts shortage caused some other problems as well. Back then, Britain had 67 AH-64s, and was supposed to have 144 two man crews (pilot and weapons operator). But there were only 68 crews, and the Royal Air Force (RAF) then has lowered the goal to 120 crews. Because of parts shortages, and cannibalizing helicopters for parts, only about a third of the AH-64s were fit for service, either in Afghanistan, or for training pilots back in Britain. Crews serve two month tours in Afghanistan, often twice a year.

The problems have been building for several years. Cuts in defense spending have led to low stockpiles of spare parts for many major weapons systems. As a result, the hard working British AH-64 helicopter gunships in Afghanistan were suffering a chronic shortage of spare parts. In reaction to this, hundreds of parts were removed from Britain's AH-64 fleet in order to keep those in Afghanistan in working order. Some British commanders wanted to get more AH-64s to Afghanistan, but the spare parts situation makes that inadvisable (as it would ground a large number of other AH-64s that were cannibalized.) Three years later, the same thing is happening with the Typhoon.

Britain has been cutting back on defense spending since the end of the Cold War in 1991, as have most other European countries. But operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have put more helicopters into the air, more often, and in very demanding (hot and dusty) conditions. This has used up spare parts stockpiles (which were not large to begin with), causing many helicopters to be sidelined and often cannibalized for parts, to keep others in the air. The lack of flyable AH-64s has been a major cause of the crew shortage (machines not available for training), in addition to difficulty in recruiting suitable candidates to operate the AH-64s. A similar pattern is developing with the Typhoon.

Britain is not alone in suffering from this problem. A study of the first year of the Iraq war revealed a lack of U.S. war reserve stocks. These are supplies (especially ammo and spare parts) that are stockpiled in peacetime so that, when a war comes, the troops would have adequate supplies for the first few months of the conflict. Or at least until new supplies could be ordered and delivered.

After the Cold War ended in 1991, the rather large reserve stocks were allowed to run down, or were sold off. The Cold War stocks were large, and expensive to maintain. It made sense to reduce them. But not much was purchased to create “post-Cold War” war reserve stocks. To compound the problem, the Pentagon had not developed an effective inventory control system for wartime operations. The military war reserve stocks were managed like there would never be a war. Strange, but true. The Afghanistan operations used so few resources that it had hardly any impact on the war reserve stocks. But Iraq gave the system a real workout, and the logistics and supply people had to make things up as they went along. The result was an expensive scramble, producing too few, or too many needed items. The lack of planning led to problems like being unable to accurately track the movement of the two million tons of supplies shipped that year. It was so bad, that some items were not even packaged properly to survive shipment overseas. Supplies weren’t the only thing that didn’t move properly. The lack of planning, and peacetime training exercises, also meant that money was often not delivered to key vendors in time. This was particularly troublesome when the vendor happened to be an air or sea freight company.

The U.S. Transportation Command, and several other agencies involved in this mess, all pledged to set things right and sin no more. They were half right. Everyone hustled to get the system patched up and functioning for now. But in the future, the same rot and sloppiness will seep back in. That’s what has happened time and again in the past. Odds are, it will happen yet again. People like to talk about future wars, but no one likes to spend money on getting ready to buy, store and ship the needed supplies.

 


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