Rethinking the Possible: Toward the Next Iteration of the Air Force Sustainment Center Way Published July 22, 2022 Since its inception, the Air Force Sustainment Center has promulgated and refined the “AFSC Way,” a methodology and cognitive model focused on identifying, elevating, and resolving constraints hindering AFSC units from executing their missions.1 This approach has allowed the Air Force to realize significant gains in speed and cost effectiveness, maximizing throughput for the Center and improving the synchronization necessary for maintenance, modification, overhaul, and sustainment of Air Force, DoD, and allied/partner combat power across an exceptionally diverse set of assets and capabilities. However, as the Air Force transitions toward a new era of great power competition, the “Art of the Possible” principles that served AFSC well in its first decade are creating underappreciated risks to the force. 2 Given the recurring tension between efficiency and resiliency, AoP principles risk becoming dogma incentivizing AFSC production teams to optimize their efforts at the expense of the wider Air Force. The AFSC Way needs to account for the logistics challenges already imposed by great power competition and change to prepare AFSC for the unpredictable logistics requirements that it will face if great power competition becomes great power war. AFSC needs to shift focus toward increased resiliency and agility at the expense of accepting some nominally-wasteful activity; double down on initiatives to develop a multi-skilled civilian workforce capable of adjusting to shifting demands; and turn organic manufacturing loose to account for the rapidly-changing requirements AFSC can expect in the case of great power war. These changes will better posture AFSC for an era where the standard production rhythm of the past decade becomes the exception rather than the rule. AFSC methodology works well to manage the (relatively) predictable cycle of programmed depot maintenance. Consider the AFSC Way’s focus on minimizing waste and maximizing efficiency. Generally, “waste” refers to non-value-added activity (activity that does not add value for the supported unit).3 Efficiency – minimizing non-value-added activity, multitasking, and overproduction compared to the process constraint’s capacity – allows AFSC to meet customer requirements at the lowest possible cost.4 When synchronized with customer inputs, AFSC can design process flows that meet customer needs and save resources, resulting in a win-win for customers and AFSC. AFSC executes these process flows with a relentless focus on standard work and scripting, documenting processes and procedures to be executed at the tactical level to ensure production remains on schedule.5 The key to AFSC’s success with the script is Work-In-Process (WIP) control: managing system inputs to ensure assets do not remain at different, unfinished stages of maintenance production and thereby preventing constraints from causing work to stop (and accumulate) at various points in the process.6 There is much to commend in the AFSC Way. AFSC’s methodology allows for rapid identification of constraints, letting process managers either set capacity limits for production (as maximum employment of the constraint represents the upper limit of the overall process capacity) or adjust processes, resource allocation, and personnel to increase the capacity of the constraint. The AFSC Way also drives standardization at the tactical level through visual management, process documentation, and overall process control, striking an excellent balance between innovation and the tactical standardization necessary for industrial and administrative processes to execute as designed.7 In practice, AFSC has proven that the organization retains the flexibility to adapt to the reality that it operates within a wider, complex-adaptive system, and it has developed processes such as speed lines and off ramps for assets requiring unexpected work in an attempt to preserve standard work and process flow for the majority of the assets flowing through the system.8 Overall, the AFSC Way has served the Air Force and its personnel very well. The AFSC Way does not align well with the future needs of the Air Force in an era of great power competition and preparation for great power conflict or war. I argue the key requirements for successfully implementing the AFSC Way – WIP control, standard work, and protecting the schedule over all else – are less feasible in the future than they were in AFSC’s first decade of existence. Even without the systemic stress of great power war, a lack of manufacturers to support aging assets (a problem a decade ago and now a crisis) and the risks of obtaining industry support from companies with Chinese investment continue to stress AFSC’s ability to execute processes smoothly according to the script.9 How much more difficult will obtaining this support become when war begins and legacy assets are sustaining battle damage, facing attack on the ground, or requiring heroic efforts to restore assets to the fight within the timelines required by combatant commands? Even worse from an “efficiency” perspective, potential loss rates from great power war will wreak havoc on the enterprise’s sustainment schedule: WIP may surge and then run dry for extended periods as assets flood in for complex repairs and then are pushed back into the fight, while in-theater assets may remain field-possessed for extended periods. Depot maintenance cycles may be deferred, cancelled, or modified as commanders accept increased risk to accomplish assigned missions. AFSC expeditionary support capabilities may become taxed beyond limits. In such a future, AFSC will need to support the Air Force with rapid, flexible solutions, from individualized custom repair actions to increased expeditionary support to recover damaged assets.10 Why does this potential future pose a problem for AFSC? Under the current cognitive and methodological approach, AFSC may not be able to meet the Air Force’s objectives. “Waste” in the context of excess capacity is only waste when it is not required; when requirements shift rapidly, one can properly term this capacity “resiliency.” Similarly, standard work allows for increased efficiency, less individual training, and ultimately, fewer resources to accomplish the work. However, when assets require unique repairs to restore damage from enemy action, excessive wear/tear from contingencies, or individual attention, narrow focus on scripted work could overwhelm production units into paralysis or irrelevance (as AFSC comes to realize that no two assets require the same work package any longer).11 And if assets are coming back to AFSC on irregular cycles with urgent requirements, AFSC will not have the luxury of focusing on WIP management and schedule; that is, AFSC will not be able to impose order on the external system in which it operates. A boom-and-bust cycle will be the norm, and AFSC will need flexibility and agility baked into its management processes to adapt to this environment. Course correction, rather than revolution, can prepare AFSC for its next decade. Given these challenges, what should AFSC do? First, validate the fidelity of surge capacity analysis and invest in additional resiliency in AFSC’s ability to sustain capital-intensive assets if contingency requirements break production schedules. Underinvesting in resiliency stems from misaligned incentives between AFSC customers and the corporate Air Force as a whole; individual customers rightly desire the most efficient sustainment for their specific assets, while the Air Force as a whole needs a resilient, flexible AFSC for the future fight. Maintenance depots already impose customer surcharges for infrastructure sustainment, and so funding for resiliency improvements is not impossible.12 AFSC, AFMC, and AF leadership must defend the need for this resiliency despite (or because of) the fact that it may never be needed.13 Second, AFSC should support and expand efforts already underway to create a multi-skilled civilian workforce in the same manner as active-duty efforts to develop multi-skilled Airmen.14 If contingencies will drive AFSC toward fluctuating requirements, a workforce more capable of adapting to those fluctuations will improve utilization of the workforce and minimize the true waste associated with an idle workforce unable to perform because there is no work available that matches available skill sets.15 Finally, AFSC should work across the enterprise toward improved integration of depot organic manufacturing capability into Air Force supply chain operations. When engineering, supply chain managers, and depot manufacturing are aligned, AFSC can deliver flexible solutions quickly and keep sustainment activity on track. However, tension remains between the desire for rapid sustainment actions and DoD policy to support the commercial industrial base, even if it is slower than an alternative solution.16 These delays are frustrating in the current environment, and they will be untenable in a future war. One obvious critique of this argument is the difficulty of quantifying the risk AFSC faces. Improved data can only help the broader Air Force understand the risks and tradeoffs associated with current AFSC processes, so realistically incorporating logistics operations into wargaming and exercises, particularly for protracted operations, is absolutely necessary to identify where the most likely gaps exist within AFSC. In an unclassified paper, perhaps the best way to phrase the problem is that in such scenarios, AFSC may find itself both significantly under and over-invested across its various sustainment capabilities; certain production lines have eaten up much of their theoretical surge capacity sustaining the demands of the current fleet, while other production lines may find themselves with very little work to do in a contingency scenario, especially if battle losses render sustainment needs moot for a significant portion of the supported fleet. Flexibility, rather than current AFSC focus on a standard battle rhythm, will be necessary for success in the next war. Advocating for a disciplined intellectual approach to process agility should not be terribly controversial; just as the current iteration of the AFSC Way borrows liberally from LEAN principles, so too should AFSC borrow from the private sector’s current challenges in a world of supply chain disruptions and rapid oscillations in customer demand quantity and type.17 Possibly the last thing AFSC needs is to retire the AFSC Way and the “Art of the Possible” and introduce a new intellectual concept that will take years to instill into AFSC culture and be incorporated into the organization. However, the current iteration of AoP makes implicit assumptions about the environment in which AFSC operates that are unlikely to hold true as great power competition and the risk of great power war increase. AFSC and the Air Force must balance AFSC’s focus on WIP control, standard work/scripting, and schedule management with the need for flexibility and resiliency to provide the support the Air Force needs. Otherwise, contingency sustainment efforts will shift away from AFSC and onto the backs of overworked field level maintainers, with negative results for the Air Force and DoD. Mr. Joseph H. Carignan Mr. Joseph H. Carignan is a career civil servant with 16 years of Air Force service in Information Technology, Staff, and Logistics positions. He recently served as Branch Chief for Business Development, Oklahoma City Air Logistics Complex, Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma. During his career, he has led two Air Force maintenance squadrons and deployed to Afghanistan to provide forward logistics support to coalition partners. In addition, Mr. Carignan is a recent graduate of Air War College’s in residence program, where he earned his Master’s in Strategic Studies with highest academic distinction. Mr. Carignan also possesses a Master’s degree in History from the University of Tennessee and a Bachelor’s Degree in History and Philosophy from The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC. He is currently assigned to Headquarters Air Force, A5 Futures. NOTES 1. Air Force Sustainment Center Handbook, AFSCH60-101, (December 28, 2021), 1. 2. Charles Q. Brown, Jr., “Accelerate Change or Lose” (August, 2020), 3. 3. For summaries of the the eight generally accepted types of waste (mistakes, overproduction, waiting, non-value added processing, transportation, inventory, motion, and idle employees), see ISIXSIMA, https://www.isixsigma.com/dictionary/waste/. 4. AFSCH60-101, A.8. 5. Ibid., 2.4. 6. Ibid., 126.96.36.199.1. 7. Ibid., 3.1. 8. Joachim P. Sturmberg, “Complexity Sciences,” Health System Redesign (Switzerland: Springer International Publishing, 2018), 21-35. Key components of complex adaptive systems include many-to-many relationships and multiple nodes within the system with independent agency, all of which operate within the system to reestablish equilibrium as inputs enter the system.; AFSCH60-101, A.8.2. 9. Jay Mandelbaum, Tina M. Patterson, et. al., “DMSMS Management: After Years of Evolution, There’s Still Room for Improvement,” Defense Standardization Program Journal (October/December, 2017), 14; Paul McCleary, “DoD’s New Pushback Against Chinese Money In US Defense Industry,” Breaking Defense (April 12, 2021), https://breakingdefense.com/2021/04/dod-pushes-back-against-prc-money-in-us-supply-base/. 10. Depot Expeditionary Capability may experience increased demand if capital-intensive assets sustain significant damage without being lost. See for example David Cenciotti, “Wise Guy” is Back! Regenerated After 10 Years At the “Boneyard” B-52H Flies Again After PDM at Tinker AFB,” The Aviationist (December 17, 2020), https://theaviationist.com/2020/12/17/wise-guy-is-back-regenerated-after-10-years-at-the-boneyard-b-52h-flies-again-after-pdm-at-tinker-afb/. 11. Rachel S. Cohen and Stephen Losey, “US Air Force fleet’s mission-capable rates are stagnating. Here’s the plan to change that,” Air Force Times (February 14, 2022). As discussed here, service life extension programs increase the risk of unique and unplanned failure modes, driving expensive custom repair work that conflicts directly with the drive toward standard work inherent in the AFSC model. 12. Funding resiliency through customer charges will be unpopular with customers but is the most realistic way to obtain the funds compared to the massive competition for limited resources at the corporate Air Force/DoD level. I appreciate the assistance of Lt Col Dan Hilferty, US Transportation Command, for his review of this essay and this insight. 13. Given budget constraints, this recommendation is not a call for more resources, but the Air Force enterprise will need to factor the need for resiliency into its prioritization schema. The key leadership task is to defend organic AFSC activity even if it cannot compete with contract maintenance and repair on lowest cost, because investing in resilience and flexibility absolutely will have cost. 14. Amy Hudson, “Coming Soon: ‘Multi-Capable Airmen’ for Combat Deployments,” Air Force Magazine (March 19, 2020), https://www.airforcemag.com/coming-soon-multi-capable-airmen-for-combat-deployments/. 15. The series-specific bureaucratization of the civilian personnel system remains a major obstacle and likely deserves its own line of effort beyond AFSC specifically. 16] The White House, “Fact Sheet: Department of Defense Releases New Report on Safeguarding Our National Security by Promoting Competition in the Defense Industrial Base,” February 15, 2022, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2022/02/15/fact-sheet-department-of-defense-releases-new-report-on-safeguarding-our-national-security-by-promoting-competition-in-the-defense-industrial-base/. See also C. Todd Lopez, “DOD Metrics-Based Goals Will Strengthen Organic Industrial Base, Official Says,” Department of Defense (October 28, 2021), https://www.defense.gov/News/News-Stories/Article/Article/2826379/dod-metrics-based-goals-will-strengthen-organic-industrial-base-official-says/. 17. Jim Kilpatrick, Paul Delesalle, and Adam Mussomeli, “The New Supply Chain Equilibrium,” Deloitte Insights, https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/insights/focus/supply-chain/supply-chain-agility-efficiency.html.