Avoiding a Mid-Life Crisis

This article was published in the Issue of February/March 2016.

Like other aircraft manufacturers Saab has worked hard to develop a maintenance concept for its JAS-39C/D fighters which ensures a high availability, low lifecycle costs and a small logistics footprint. (Thomas Withington)

The Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) requirements of military aircraft account for a significant portion of defence budgets around the world. Customers want high reliability and availability from their fighter, helicopter, transport and special mission aircraft, and they want it at a good price.

This need to keep their customers flying where and when they need to at low lifecycle costs and via simplified logistics models is increasingly driving aircraft manufacturers to build in easy to maintain and repair capabilities to their aircraft from the outset, thus reducing pressure on MRO budgets in the long term and making their products more attractive from the outset. For existing in-service aircraft this means getting innovative with the services they offer and, increasingly, streamlining MRO provision across customer groups to deliver availability at the right price.

Dassault Rafale-B/C Standard F3 fighter
The Dassault Rafale-B/C Standard F3 fighter was designed from the outset to have as low a maintenance, repair and overhaul burden as possible. This includes the ability to change engines rapidly, and the reduction of its maintenance schedule vis-à-vis previous generations of combat aircraft. (Thomas Withington)

Cost Savings

In 2006 the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) embarked on the first phase of a 25-year contract with AgustaWestland (now Finmeccanica Helicopters) for the operational support of the Royal Navy’s HM.1 and HC.3/A Merlin naval support and medium-lift utility helicopter fleet operated by the Fleet Air Arm (FAA).

The contract, known as the Integrated Merlin Operational Support (IMOS) contract, is a total service provision which includes technical support and publications, spares supply, aircraft maintenance, configuration management, safety and risk management. At the time the contract award was expected to deliver support cost savings to the MoD of around $710.9 million over the course of the 25 years. This was to be achieved by introducing a new support model for the fleet, under which AgustaWestland would be paid for achieving flight hours, along with incentivised arrangements associated with delivering agreed levels of aircraft serviceability, operational fleet aircraft numbers and Merlin Training System (MTS) availability. The MTS is an initiative to train HM.1/HC.3/A air and maintenance crews in the aircraft’s operations which uses a number of training tools, including flight simulators, to this end.

Such a model relies heavily on a partnered approach to achieve value for money for the MoD, and the results of the initial five-year phase were positive. On award of the second five-year phase of the contract in January 2011 (valued at approximately $810.4 million), the company said that together AgustaWestland and the Merlin Project Team had “delivered major support cost savings while enhancing aircraft availability” under the initial phase.

“IMOS is an output requirement-based contract providing aircraft availability which moves away from the traditional spares provision type of contract,” Simon Jones, vice president of UK government business, for Finmeccanica’s helicopter division, told Armada. “This incentivises us to improve parts availability and servicing intervals and ultimately reduces the time and cost associated with maintaining the aircraft. The service is continually reviewed and updated in line with customer requirements and identified opportunities to further improve the effectiveness of the service or reduce the overall cost to defence.” The most recent phase of the contract was awarded to the company in March 2015. It is valued at approximately $824.6 million and will run until March 2020.

Mixed Requirements

The helicopters supported under IMOS include the 30 HM.2 and 25 Merlin HC.3/3A, with the latter two types (HC.3/3A) being simultaneously converted by the company to HC.4 and 4A standard for amphibious support operations under the Merlin Life Sustainment Programme (MLSP). Providing availability-based support for such a mixed fleet at the right price presents a challenge for the company. “Cost reduction targets are built into the contract, typically ten percent, and that requires innovation and continued focus on all aspects of the contract to achieve the reduction,” Jones said. “Achieving those cost reduction targets becomes more challenging as the fleet diversifies to meet growing needs of the front line; higher numbers of the same spare in a single fleet offers greater cost reduction than smaller batches of different parts.”

The Royal Navy’s HM.2
The Royal Navy’s HM.2 and HC.3/3A Merlin naval support and medium-lift utility helicopters benefit from an MRO scheme developed by the UK MoD and the aircraft’s manufacturer which places a high premium on delivering value for money. (UK MoD)

In order to deliver, investment in repair and overhaul centres and a focus on parts reliability and servicing intervals has been key to reducing the maintenance activity and extending the frequency of that activity. “Reducing the maintenance burden and improving parts reliability, coupled with ongoing review of all aspects of the contract to reduce costs has become a key focus, away from the traditional provision of spares,” Mr. Jones continued. Finmeccanica is also continually seeking new technologies and capabilities to ensure that availability rates can continue to increase for its customers. “New aircraft design is focused on minimising both the cost of acquisition and the through life cost from the outset, and feedback from other rotary wing platforms provides the benchmarks and learning which are then built into new aircraft design,” Mr. Jones said. “The (AgustaWestland/Finmeccanica) AW-159 Wildcat is the first aircraft to receive the benefit of this approach to design. It is a brand new aircraft which had through life cost and management designed in from day one and this was a key factor in the navy achieving 99 percent availability on the first HMA.2 Wildcat naval support helicopters operated by the FAA; and as mentioned previously, this focus on reducing maintenance frequency and improved reliability all improve aircraft availability.”

The Royal Navy’s HMA.2
The Royal Navy’s HMA.2 Lynx Wildcat naval support helicopter has benefited from a similar MRO approach to that developed for the force’s HM.2 and HC.3/3A Merlin naval rotorcraft. (UK MoD)

This in-built maintainability is a growing requirement, with customers now paying much more attention to the long term support and training requirements and costs for the platforms they are looking to procure, recognising this is a key element in driving capability up and through life costs down.

A Different Model

Regarding fixed-wing aircraft, Boeing has developed a model to support its worldwide C-17A Globemaster-III strategic turbofan freighter fleet that allows it to leverage whole fleet cost savings across its operator base. This model is based on a public-private agreement designed around the concept of Performance-Based Logistics (PBL) in which customers pay for readiness, not specific parts or services. 

Boeing has worked to develop a robust system for the MRO of the global C-17A Globemaster-III fleet which is designed around its Performance-Based Logistics model. (USAF)

Under the C-17A Globemaster-III Integrated Sustainment Program (GISP), Boeing provides all of its C-17A customers with fully-integrated and affordable solutions that ensure fleet readiness, enhance aircraft capability, extend platform life and reduce lifetime cost-of-ownership. The arrangement ensures mission readiness by providing all C-17A customers with access to an extensive support network for worldwide parts availability, and has delivered some impressive statistics for a global fleet that logged its three millionth flight hour in May 2015 supporting military, humanitarian and disaster relief missions around the world.

According to the company, GISP “has become a model for the future of sustainment” and has sustained average mission readiness rates of more than 85 percent for the past ten years across its global C-17A fleet. Additionally, over a ten-year period from 2004 to 2014, C-17A support dollar costs per aircraft were reduced by 36 percent, the company adds. The tailored programme is designed to address aerospace support across the entire C-17 product lifecycle with a flexible offering that meets customers’ varying needs. This customer base includes, in addition to the US Air Force (USAF), the Indian Air Force, the Kuwait Air Force, the NATO Consortium (providing the Alliance’s Strategic Airlift Capability), the Qatar Emiri Air Force, the Royal Air Force, the Royal Australian Air Force, the Royal Canadian Air Force and the United Arab Emirates Air Force. “In partnership with the USAF, the C-17A GISP virtual fleet arrangement ensures increased mission readiness by providing all C-17A customers with varied fleet sizes the benefit of access to an extensive support network for worldwide part availability and economies of scale when purchasing materials,” a company spokesperson told Armada. “This brings spares and support closer to the action and makes the C-17A more affordable to own and operate.”

Boeing is fully responsible and accountable for total weapon system availability, executing programme management, sustaining logistics, material and equipment management, sustaining engineering, depot-level aircraft maintenance, engine management, long-term sustainment planning, Air Logistics Complex depot partnerships and the support of international military customers. This is conducted by support and modernisation teams located around the world, at USAF airbases, at management offices in Southern California, Georgia and South Carolina, and at supply and maintenance depots internationally. “Boeing on-site base support includes personnel for base management and operations support, field services and engineering technical support, aircraft configuration and data management, base-level engine management and 24/7 base supply support for spares,” the spokesperson added. “Other unique service requests when needed include aircraft recovery, flight line and back shop maintenance, support equipment maintenance and palletized seat maintenance.”

With C-17A Globemaster III production now having ended, the Boeing team has the task of transitioning the C-17 customer community’s partnering from production to sustainment. “As the C-17A surpasses 20 years and 3 million flight hours, the same challenges that emerge on all out-of-production aircraft will become challenges for the Globemaster,” the spokesperson added. “Boeing is focused on using its repository of supply chain data, procurement and component repair subcontracts, demand planning and analytics, and global asset management infrastructure to proactively address and mitigate challenges related to material availability within our supplier base … while Boeing technical representatives and field engineering are embedded within each C-17A customer maintenance organisation to monitor aircraft structural, avionics, and mission system performance and to provide expeditious engineering-based solutions and repair dispositions.”

Fast Jet

Beyond freighters, fighters are increasingly supported under centralised programmes that allow the suppliers to offer economies of scale. In December 2015 Saab received an order from the Försvarets Materielverk (FMV/Swedish Defence Materiel Administration) to provide MRO and continuing development work for Saab JAS-39C/D Gripen fighter operations during 2016 on behalf of the Flygvapnet (RSAF/Royal Swedish Air Force). The order, part of exercised options of a framework contract signed between Saab and the FMV in December 2013, will see the company operate rigs, simulators and test aircraft for the verification, validation and operational support of the JAS-39C/D and the forthcoming JAS-39E/F fighter due to enter RSAF service before the end of the decade.

Saab’s Performance Based Logistics contract with the FMV sees it provide a number of different support and MRO services for JAS-39C/D operators in Sweden, Hungary, Czech and Thailand. “The main objective is to continue to deliver outstanding aircraft availability and low lifecycle cost for the Gripen operators,” Fredrik Bergkvist, marketing and sales director in Saab’s support and services business area told Armada. “Within this contract Saab provides technical services, depot level maintenance, and spare parts. We also provide on-aircraft maintenance and we have recently received authorisation regarding technical training from the Swedish Military Aviation Safety Inspectorate. As a result Saab now provides military technician training for military customers in accordance to a standard similar to what commercial customers work within.”

Like other aircraft manufacturers Saab has worked hard to develop a maintenance concept for its JAS-39C/D fighters which ensures a high availability, low lifecycle costs and a small logistics footprint. (Thomas Withington)

The overall goal for its customers, Mr. Bergkvist said, is aircraft availability, low lifecycle costs, a small logistics footprint, simplicity and, perhaps most importantly, affordability. Reducing support costs while securing high availability and increasing system functions is driving Saab to invest in key technologies, including improvements of built-in testing capabilities, reduction of maintenance requirements, increased reliability, redundancy, and improvements regarding the development and management of technical information.

MRO Trends

A key aspect of keeping costs low is delivering a proportion of MRO work in-country for the customer nation, and Saab seeks to find well-balanced solutions including working with local operators and partners where possible. This capacity to work locally is becoming more important to customers as security of supply becomes an increasing concern. “On aircraft MRO is more commonly of interest to be performed at in-country facilities and component MRO is usually a little less important,” Mr. Bergkvist said: “Saab has however noted an increasing customer interest in security of supply and this has created a slightly higher interest regarding in-country facilities also for components. In-country component MRO facilities can also be a great asset to reduce turn-around times, and by this the investment cost for spare components can be reduced. Saab always strives to offer each customer a well-balanced solution considering initial investments, lifecycle cost, availability, turn-around times, investments in spares and components, existing in-country capabilities, customer strategy, synergies with other programmes.”

The other major influencing factor on MRO provision models according to the company is the increasing need for its customers to do more with less in the face of continued budget pressure. “(This) continues to challenge and move boundaries between operators and industry to enable utilisation of synergies between different customers and different programmes,” Mr. Bergkvist added. “This includes considerations regarding cooperation between customers and operators, as well as transfer of maintenance and support tasks and commitments from the customers and operators to industry.” He concluded by observing that “(t)he trend to transfer more and more of the support responsibility to industry appears to continue. The operators continue to focus on the actual operation and expect industry to be able to offer and guarantee long-term total support solutions.”

by Claire Apthorp