Maintenance of Military Equipment Need for a Renaissance
It is well known that in the modern world there is a need for an agile and leaner combat support force to meet the modernisation of the Indian Army. The diversity and proliferation in the technology of the equipment being procured has resulted in sophisticated equipment which needs periodic and superior maintenance. I still remember an embarrassed myself in uniform standing in the inner circle of Connaught Place in Delhi with my girlfriend in 1984 next to a one ton vehicle with its hood open and the driver trying to pump desperately the carburettor. Well, today the vehicles are the least of the problem in the Army with advanced technology and better maintenance spares available at most of the locations. As the equipment gets more and more complex, there is a need for new processes, organisations and maintenance equipment to take their place in the pantheon of sustenance of equipment. With the augmentation of fast developing trade, industry and indigenous research, we could synergise these into the maintenance system to gain financially and have a better and more capable organisation. No country in the world can afford to have all their equipment of latest technology since the cost would be prohibitive. Therefore, a judicious mix of matured, current and newer technologies keeping the operational requirement in mind is the optimal solution. Whatever solution is found, the reliability and availability of the equipment when required to be used is the vital factor for maintenance and upkeep. This can only be done with the user hand in glove with the maintenance agency. This is the real challenge in the world of maintenance of military equipment. So what all is required for carrying out this complicated task? These could be the design while procuring the equipment or designing if done in India, training of the operator and the maintenance agency, support structures and their availability at various locations, organisational structures and policies. My aim is to generate thought processes in highlighting these issues which are generally not discussed in public forums but are of utmost importance. On the whole, the profile of the equipment with the Army is varied and the inventory is large. The increasing sophistication is adding on to the skills required to handle, operate and sustain these equipment. Therefore, a look at the equipment sustenance requirements, the philosophy, organisational structures and a re-look at them, inventory and spares management and absorbing newer technology with human resource management are the real challenges.
Sustenance of the equipment can be called as the ability to keep the equipment on road (in Army’s language) or keep it operational (‘ops’ in air force parlance). How can the equipment be sustained? The foremost thing to remember in this is to have the design in such a fashion that one could measure or list out the amount and the nature of resources that are required to support this system. But this is rarely feasible for new designs and those designed in house by organisations like DRDO in India. Even here there is a firm requirement of user and maintenance agency involvement with the scientists to ensure that the design is simple. I still remember in one case where the designers in their enthusiasm, forgot to have a design to facilitate the maintenance man to get to the vehicle of the carrier vehicle while affording easy access to the equipment. The second most important aspect is the logistics requirement for the system to be sustained. This indeed is driven by the spare availability, distribution points, life cycle maintenance design and the resources available. In all the defence procurement cases today, the life cycle sustenance has become a part and parcel of the planning to assure the system availability. Trade-offs are being done at the contract negotiations stage while acquiring a system with respect to its life cycle cost, ease of sustainability, maintainability and even environmental norms. I know of cases where the revision in the pollution norms has revised the design in the midst of delivery of equipment! Poor sustenance will result in not only poor availability of the equipment but also leads towards a large cost factor.
One method of sustenance of equipment could be a dedicated support through various tiers or stratums of carrying out maintenance and repairs. In the Army, today there are three echelons of repairs depending on who is carrying out the repair and in which location. These are progressive from front to the base or rear. There are various workshops like the Unit Repair Organisation (URO), Light Repair workshops (LRW) and Field Workshops in the front. The second is the medium level repairs carried out at Zonal Workshops. The parallel to these are also Station, Static and Vehicle and Equipment Depot Workshops for the static or hinterland formations. The third is the repairs carried out at Base Repair workshops which are the last in the echelon. Structurally the echelon or tier system is convenient and has its strengths in a country like India where the borders and the hinterland are vast and varied in terms of terrain and weather. But this system is only useful of the echelons or tiers have dedicated repair and recovery communication network. Also, these tiers tend to get under utilised depending on their locations and their dependency. For example, a Field workshop in a far flung location will need all the manpower and infrastructure to carry out its tasks but may not have enough clientele to service. This system also has a weakness in terms of technical competence and interaction of user and technician due to their level of technical competence and locations which could lead to a larger downtime of the equipment unlike the advantage of a one to one workshop. Spares support again has the same problems due to stocking at different places and without a pan India spare management system, the advantages negligible. In terms of equipment not being manufactured in the country, constraints could be there due to availability of spares especially due to vintage, closure of production units and force-majeure aspects.
To overcome the disadvantages of the echelon system, there needs to have empowerment of certain UROs and LRWs with adequate training of the personnel, infrastructure and spare support. These cannot be uniform and has to be made as per requirement of the geographical area and the clientele. User training in maintenance needs to be a major aspect of training during conduct of courses. This will avoid off-road of equipment in the first place. Focus on such training has to be equipment oriented or focussed with specialised technicians who can train the others. Similarly low cost based applications for field level maintenance and maintenance by the user can increase the availability of the equipment. Encouraging civil workshops and e-learning modules can help the user and the technician to ensure preventive and other maintenance. Of course it goes unsaid that to ensure this we need to increase the level of intake of the personnel and their initial educational qualifications and also their screening with better modules of tests and recruitment procedures. Availability of spares sufficiently forward and in the correct quantity makes all the difference. During the contract, spares must be centrally contracted with the OEMs which although is being done now, there is a reluctance in transfer of technology of spares which after a few years of exploitation becomes the most important item to sustain the equipment procured. Therefore, spares management must be accepted as a part and parcel with its delivery system, automated supply, setting up of production in India and its eventual indigenisation. The present system of wastage pattern in peace time needs to be seriously reviewed and must be based on another model like basing on mission requirements. Today when a contract is signed, the engineering support package (ESP) is based on what the vendor recommends. Although there is a sufficiency clause penned into the contract, I haven’t seen this being used because it is really impractical to implement the parameter. ESP must be delivered in the quantity of the equipment being delivered so that the technicians and logistician can also commence their tasks simultaneously.
Another serious aspect to be seen is the amount of outsourcing that can be carried out thus eliminating static establishments or reducing their capabilities which can be used to improve forward establishments without increasing the manpower. The technician could also carry out some changes in their organisation like merging certain tradesmen, outsourcing IT repairs, closing down vehicle depot workshops and allowing the respective establishments in peace locations to get the repairs done through civil establishments. This would also make manpower available for in-house research and development for maintenance and spares. Standardisation of equipment is a very important aspect in improving the inventory list by reducing it. The offset can be used effectively to carry out this in big ticket procurements. Can we move towards Defence Maintenance System rather than individual Service’s? This can also be a very important aspect to have tri-service coordination. Training is another factor in the manpower management and improvement in sustainability and logistical efficiency. Diagnostics like a doctor is the need of the hour and students must be allowed to think and find faults. This brings in the requirement of class room variants or CRVs. The scaling while being done for any equipment must cater for the equipment and its striped models in the training establishment. For reducing the financial cost there have been cases where these training models are reduced. This is penny wise found foolish and will have an effect on the life cycle concept. Equipment based training must be the focus in all technician training establishment.
Data analysis of equipment exploitation is an important aspect. We do not have enough of this and therefore, planning is based on abstract details and data. In case new equipment is purchased from OEMs, the data analysis of exploitation of the equipment must be insisted upon along with the ESP. Logistics system capability is driven by supply, distribution, maintenance and equipment life cycle management policies, processes and resources. The life cycle activities includes maintenance planning which commences with the acquisition process, supply and spare part support, and test equipment (both mobile and fixed) including special tools and fixtures that will support the repairs.
My concluding thoughts are that the diversity and proliferation of equipment with their varied technology really poses a need for dynamic approach to engineering support which has to gel with the operational requirements. The motto of minimum off road time and maximum time between repairs is the need of the hour. Replacing forward and repair in the rear is not a slogan for the technician. Its implementation is the proof of the pudding. The improvement will only enhance better maintenance, flexibility and readiness thus improving efficiency.