Lt. Gen. Robert McMurry, commander, Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, and interim commander of the Air Force Materiel Command talks about the for need greater readiness and lethality, and his task of maintaining and modernizing the force to better compete in multiple domains with Defense & Aerospace Report Editor Vago Muradian at the Air Force Association Air, Space and Cyber Conference held at the Gaylord National Harbor. Our Air, Space and Cyber Conference coverage is sponsored Elbit Systems of America, L3 Technologies and Leonardo DRS.
Lt. Gen.Robert McMurry Jr., USAF
Acting Commander, US Air Force Materiel Command
Commander, US Air Force Life Cycle Management Center
AFA 2018 Air, Space, Cyber Conference
Vago Muradian: Welcome to the Defense and Aerospace Report. I’m Vago Muradian here at the Air Force Association’s annual Air, Space and Cyber Conference and Trade Show, just outside Washington, DC, the number one gathering of U.S. Air Force leaders from around the world to talk about the future of the service, its strategy, budgets, technology, and more. Our coverage here is sponsored by Elbit Systems of America, L3 Technologies and Leonardo DRS.
We’re honored to have with us the United States Air Force Lieutenant General Robert McMurry, who is the Commander of the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, but also the Interim Commander of the Air Force Materiel Command. Boy, it’s not like you were busy enough, so now you’ve got two jobs, sir. Thanks for the time.
Lt. Gen. Robert McMurry: Two for the price of one. I’m happy to be here, Vago.
Mr. Muradian: Secretary Wilson and Goldfein have sort of set out the strategy, that it’s a great power mindset that the service has to get into. The Secretary announcing 74 new squadrons in order to fill out the combat capability of the force, but also the sustainment and logistics piece of it.
Dr. Roper’s been working on his century goals. In order to deliver that strategy, he wants to accelerate acquisition, insert innovation, but also reduce cost. Since you are touching almost every single platform in almost every single system, talk to us a little bit about how that’s shaping your priorities and how you guys are taking that lofty strategic goal and at a very death plate level realizing it.
Lt. Gen. McMurry: When you heard the Secretary talk, she said the operational squadrons are the fist. We’re the body. We’re the power behind that. What we’ve got to do is bring material solutions that bring genuine warfighting capability.
The first step is to increase the readiness and lethality of the systems that we have now. To do that, we’ve got to get better at sustainment. The sustainment activity’s really ripe for bringing in new technology to help us prevent long-term delays or long-term fix problems on planned heavy maintenance. It brings the ability to do better maintenance on the flight line. It allows us to use data to be smart.
The things we can really bring there — additive manufacturing. Additive manufacturing allows you to build everything from parts to tools to give you a 3D model to look at failure modes and effects that you get in a way that really allow you to make the system perform better and avoid waiting three years for a part no one makes anymore.
You look at data analytics and condition-based maintenance. That allows us to look at the performance data of the system, predict when it’s going to need maintenance and then schedule that maintenance and get it done without having to wait for it to break maybe in Botswana. A long ways away. You don’t want to have to go around the world to do maintenance that you know is going to need to be done when you can do it here at home.
We know that certain things are very manpower intensive like paint. Paint’s one of our biggest. Robotic paint and de-paint capabilities, a really, really big deal.
And finally, the technology of cold spray allows you the ability to make repairs that we were never able to make before.
Those are things that, you can’t weld this, you can’t fix it, but with cold spray you can fix it and it allows you to put a $3,000 fix to return a $100,000 gearbox to service. That’s a big deal.
Second’s the sustainment side. Then what we’ve got to do is we’ve got to bring on the modernization aspect. We’re modernizing our fighter force, our bomber force, our tanker force and our trainer force. All of those are going to bring a little more punch to the operational squadrons and the ability to develop and field more capable combat responses to contingencies and issues.
When we do that, we have to be thinking along the way the Chief has been talking about, about this idea of multi-domain, about how do we bring multiple effects to bear on a situation or a case so that our enemy or our adversary is unable to predict what’s happening and is overwhelmed. He thinks of it as decision dilemmas. I think that’s a great way to talk about it. I think of it as an extension of mass. We have mass, it used to be just more guys in one place. Then it was more firepower at one place. Then it was more, it was guided firepower at one place. Now we’re talking about firepower or fire effects, if you will, from multiple domains at one place.
When you do that, you have an overwhelming impact on the enemy. That’s what we’re trying to get. To get that, you’ve got to bring acquisition programs and material solutions forward for the operator in a way that allows them to field them and use them well now and then make them better year after year.
Mr. Muradian: Dr. Roper talked to us a little bit about how much resources that could get freed up which is in the tens of billions of dollars that can be redirected toward acquisition. But more specifically, a geriatric force — not to use a phrase that retired U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General Dave Deptula, the Dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies likes to point out, it’s a geriatric force. There are a lot of modernization programs that are underway. Obviously, B-21 is underway and from the striking standpoint, F-35 and the KC-46 are all priority programs. But they’re all going into service in relatively low numbers. Historically lower numbers than we would have had in the past. For example, we had hundreds of KC-135s coming into service on an annual, well, 800 in ten years were delivered, which is a pretty robust delivery rate.
Talk to us a little bit about what you’re doing when this sustainment challenge you’re going to have is going to be even worse in say five to ten years. What are you doing across the sustainment and logistics enterprise to beef up the skills, the capabilities in order to be able to deal with an aging force which will be a little bit older before it gets utterly refreshed through a variety of these programs?
Lt. Gen. McMurry: I think the two things that come to mind right now. One is the ability to do the analytics and figure out how to predict and schedule the work better. I think corrosion maintenance and the ability to bring new technologies to maintaining and fixing corrosion and the ability to use robotics to kind of deal with corrosion and prevent it, and then data analysis to allow us to prevent corrosion. That’s a big deal.
I think we’re also bringing on, you know, you said geriatric and we don’t think of it as old, but as a very mature composite repair technology I think is something that we’re also bringing in. And we’ll bring in more and more of that as we field more aircraft with advanced materials in them.
Mr. Muradian: It’s funny you mentioned composite, because in some ways it solves certain corrosion elements that you would have in an aluminum airplane but then it has different delamination and long-term sustainability challenges that go with it. Are you finding anything from your data in terms of how that behaves over long periods of time that allow you to do a better job for, through and with composite maintenance?
Lt. Gen. McMurry: We have, when we get into the various kind of composite material performance areas we very quickly get into areas that I can’t really talk about. But what I would tell you is the Air Force Research Lab has a very efficient and very smart dedicated team looking at the effects that weather and aging and things have on those kind of materials and how do we deal with them in a way so that they last longer and they’re easier to maintain?
Mr. Muradian: Let me take you to the logistics centers at Robbins. There are going to be 1200 skilled folks that are going to be needed over 12 months. That’s replicated at other logistics facilities across the country to a degree. Some of these skills are very artisanal in a lot of ways because they’re unique skills to older aircraft. At one point nobody else in the world was even operating as many airplanes as you were of a type, like the 135, which was entirely out of production and out of service. You also need cutting-edge software skills and things like that.
At a time of full employment, what are the challenges to maintain, vitalize, and just keep attracting talent to the Air Force at a time when, again, when a robust thriving economy is making it hard for people to fill jobs.
Lt. Gen. McMurry: First, it’s culture. They want to work with the Air Force. When we work with our young people all the way to our oldest employees, what keeps them here is the opportunity to work on a mission that’s bigger than them. It’s something that’s important to the nation and they know that what they do makes a difference.
And when you talk about the artisanal nature of the work that they do, I think I agree to a degree on that. I think there’s a fair bit of fungibility, the ability to move somebody from working one airplane to another, to another. But by the same token, we get a lot of value about, you know, when we’re maintaining fleets, there are people that love that fleet of aircraft. The F-22 guys are like I worked on aircraft number one. I want to stay here and work this fleet forever. And you get a lot of maintenance ownership of those things.
That’s great, but I think what you really find, and we talk to people that come and go from our force. What makes them come back is the people they work with and the mission they do. It matters.
Mr. Muradian: So you’re pretty confident that you’re going to be able to fill these positions as they come available across the force?
Lt. Gen. McMurry: I think so. I think there will be, we do have an ability to kind of move, I don’t want to say move work, because we don’t transition missions from one base to another, but we’ve had a pretty good ability to find workforce when we need it for most of the things that we do.
Software skills and data skills are probably one of our biggest challenges, but every industry’s having that.
We’re looking at how can we go at that from a slightly different angle and get the people that we need to fill that in both an economical, but a productive manner because they aren’t just needed for us, they’re needed for the nation. So how do we bring them on at a higher rate?
Mr. Muradian: One of the things you mentioned was additive manufacturing which is changing, is a game-changing technology. I know that there are components that are now out and flying in the force. There are air certification issues that are associated with some of that. And not all powders are equal. Right? There are some things that work very well and there are others that don’t. And some see it as a panacea and others say well, you know.
From a realistic standpoint, how does additive fit into this entire ecosystem where, again, I mean as you mentioned some of these parts take years to produce. You said you can’t wait three years for certain spare parts, especially for certain odd, old machine spare parts that we’ve had. Talk to us about what the role of additive is in the entire equation.
Lt. Gen. McMurry: So additive has a part in almost the full spectrum of operations, eventually at least that’s the way we see it. Right now today there are some things you can do easily with additive. If you need tooling jigs, if you need kind of bracing material, if you need things that are needed in order to manufacture something, you can make those with additive. Things that are not flight safety critical, we can make those.
There are degrees of flight criticality that we can get to. Where we’re not ready yet is in structure, I’m trying to think of the right phrase. It’s safety-critical structure. We’re not there yet. The lab is looking closely at what variability in the molecular structure we need to be tracking to make sure that we can do this safely. We’re looking at test schema that would allow us to get to a high confidence in that. But the real issue is that powder to powder, machine to machine, part to part, there is variability, and we need to know how to detect that variability and eliminate it so that we can get to that level of performance.
But that level of performance isn’t the biggest, I mean it’s not all of the problem. We have a lot of issues that we just don’t have the tooling, we don’t have the jig, we don’t have this masking bit, we don’t have that stint. We can do a ton of things with additive that allow us to not wait. I mean a knob breaks off, you know, well, maybe I can just print another knob instead of having to order one and not be able to operate that radio for a long time.
I actually believe that there’s a thing called Amara’s Law. This guy looked at, he says technology, we always over-estimate the impact that it will have in the near term, so there will be a while before additive comes along. But we tend to underestimate it in the long term. I believe additive’s going to just be everywhere.
We know it’s out there and the best description I have is that it’s kind of like a lot of islands right now. What we’ve got to do is figure out how to network those islands together so that they can have access to the data they need to be able to do the work smartly.
Mr. Muradian: Talk to us a little bit about your S&T 2030 plan. That’s your long-range roadmap that’s supposed to be done in December. Give us a sense on what we should expect to see from that.
Lt. Gen. McMurry: First, I want to say it’s really the Secretary’s S&T 2030 roadmap. I think what the emphasis on that was a question of are we really looking in the right places and working with the right people on foundational science and technology. I don’t want to get ahead of the Secretary in terms of what that’s going to say, but I’m reasonably confident we have a pretty robust approach towards science and technology through the Air Force Research Lab and through our collaboration with universities and small business.
What I think we’re going to look at, I don’t know that the report will say that, but McMurry’s opinion is that one of the things we’re going to look at is we really need to establish our priorities well, and that’s a challenge in areas like fundamental scientific, science and technology. General Pawlikowski used to say this, she was my boss for a long time so I get to quote her. She said technology doesn’t know its purpose until we tell it. So you could be finding the exact right technology but you haven’t got the right use for it yet so you’re not sure how important it is. So as we move forward I think what we’re going to find is that we had a robust program that will need some focusing. I’m not divulging report data. I don’t know. I think as it gets to me we’ll work through it and we’ll work through it with the Secretary.
Mr. Muradian: One quick question and that is on changing acquisition culture. There are great institutions. If you look at AFMC, it’s been delivering technology for 75 years. Right? It’s in the business of satisfying the demands of the service with innovation and reliability and repeatability and that includes enterprise-wide whether it’s for sustainment and logistics.
Talk to us a little bit about the culture change. Dr. Roper’s talking about a culture change, the Secretary’s talking about it, and certainly, the Chief’s talking about it. Talk to us about how you’re changing culturally the organization to move more quickly. Because all of that acceleration frees time which frees money which then can be reinvested into getting new stuff. Talk to us about that culture change.
Lt. Gen. McMurry: I’ll tell you a few things about that. First, the willingness of senior leadership to move forward in making the system operate faster, that’s a huge deal. The second thing we’ve got to do is we’ve got to communicate to our people and say what you do matters. You are the body behind that punch. You’re the power. So the material solutions we bring matter. And you’ve got to get focused on outcomes and delivery of that capability. Then we’ve actually got to deliver that capability so that we can see it work and in a way that builds trust with the user.
When we do that, our people look at this place and they say there’s no place else I want to work. That’s where I want to be. That makes us more competitive for talent. It makes us more competitive as a military. And makes us safer as a nation.
Mr. Muradian: Talk to us a little bit, because you have to spend money to save money. How much money will be required? How much of an investment’s got to go into this and what are your investment priorities to get to that next level of sustainment and support for the force, given that that capability is so critical?
Lt. Gen. McMurry: Well let’s talk about our first two priorities first. First is human capital. Because to go fast and do things better we’ve got to have people. Second, is I want a digital enterprise.
For the people, I’ve had really good support from Congress both in authorities and things we can do to hire people, bring them on faster, on-board them, and our net budget increase basically is going to be about 9.5 percent. That gets us to about the authorization that we really wanted, and I think that’s going to help us.
We’ve got a lot of new programs so we’re not overflowing with people, but that will help us move faster.
On the digital enterprise side, what we’re talking about there are things like additive manufacturing, CBM, condition-based maintenance. We’re talking about reliability improvements. We’re talking about cold spray and other technologies that we can bring into the sustainment business. That investment is going to run in the tens of millions per year, but I don’t know when it ends, but it does tend to pay for itself pretty quickly if we do it right.
So what we’re trying to do is move into that at a fairly slow rate and get competent and keep going at it and just continue to add money into it as we need to, as we see opportunities.
Mr. Muradian: And what’s the role from industry, whether it’s from airlines, whether it’s even outsourcing work, whether it’s different kinds of partnerships. What are some of the other ways that you can bring some of the best of private industry into the system to improve the output?
Lt. Gen. McMurry: I think the best way to think of industry, first, is we don’t want to invent it if we don’t have to. If industry can solve the problem, we’re going to look there. The people we’re learning the most from right now probably are Delta Airlines. Delta Airlines took on this problem of trying to deal with the reliability of their fleet, and how did they approach it? They did it with a data analytics approach and condition-based maintenance. And what we’ve learned from them is how to start building that data leg, how to start putting the agile programmers together and the analysts to start figuring out what’s going on with aircraft so we can fix them before they break.
We’ve already seen fixes on B-1s with fuel leaks where you could detect the fuel is leaking by the movement of, the migration of the fuel from the sensors that we have in the aircraft.
We’ve also seen C-5 errors that we found through the analysis of the data.
What we’re going to do is expand that to an enhanced reliability program which will allow us to bring data from non-instrumented aircraft, old aircraft like KC-135 or B-52 and look at the reliability drivers there and be anticipatory about where we think breaks are going to happen so that we can stop having unexpected breaks and do a lot more with predicted and planned maintenance. That should improve reliability and mission capability rates.
Mr. Muradian: Is there a role also for like performance-based logistics or anything else in that broader equation for support do you think?
Lt. Gen. McMurry: I think there is, but I think really the way that all fits together is that our understanding of the things you can do with analytics ought to drive requirements into performance-based logistics. Say this is what our expectations are.
Mr. Muradian: Sir, thanks very, very much.
Lt. Gen. McMurry: Okay. I’m glad to be here. Have a great day and a happy conference.