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You get what you pay for.

Back when electricity was getting to be a big deal, I went to flight school. When I headed off to Meridian, Miss., to fly the T-2 Buckeye, it was my first exposure to ejection seats. I remember sitting through the systems lecture for the ejection seat system and the instructor pilot said to us wide-eyed ensigns, "Should you ever have to pull the handle, take comfort in knowing that every part of this ejection seat was built by the lowest bidder."

Cheap had never meant quality or high performance in my experience, so that worried me a bit until I figured that low bidder or not, it was better to pull the handle and bet on the seat working than ride it in. I quickly got good with the low bidder thing. If the builder says it will work, its going to work, right?

"You get what you pay for" is a time-tested adage. If it's true, then the ejection seat works. It's the low-cost bidder who won the contract, but the government paid for a component that would work and work to the specifications demanded. Right? But then I got to thinking: What if you don't get what you pay for? Then not only are you riding the rails of the lowest bidder, you're rolling the dice that whatever part isn't actually up to specifications is not important enough to kill you. Not all that comforting, really.

"You pays your money, you takes your chances." Are you good to go with that? I'm not. You pay your money, and you expect to get your money's worth from every dollar spent. I expect to get what I pay for, and it doesn't matter if it's the lowest bidder or the highest bidder.

Believe it or not, however, we don't always get what we pay for in the government. The purpose of this article is to accept this as the going-in proposition and explore one way Naval Aviation is making a difference.

Before going any further, let me say that I'm not interested in being sued for libel. So there are no names and deliberately not enough specificity in this article to draw a fix on any one company. There are any number of examples across multiple type/model/series that have components installed that advertise a mean time between failure rate of x, but deliver y (where y is anywhere from one percent to 99 percent less than x). I didn't know that when I was an ensign going through my first ejection seat lecture, I didn't know it when I was a lieutenant commander and the maintenance officer in a fleet squadron, and I didn't know it when I was a commodore in Kingsville, Texas. I should have. I should have been more aware of the things that were causing down jets; I should have wanted them to be fixed; and I should have been involved with finding the fixes or alerted those who could fix them. Altruistically, I should have wanted them fixed so the Navy, and taxpayers, would save money. But this never crossed my mind. If I had cared at all, I would have cared because I wanted to fly more (which to be fair is ok, because flying is what we do).

As a young officer, I was striving to lead Sailors and Marines and fly my jet in a safe and tactically sound manner. Today, however, turning a blind eye to the business end of Naval Aviation stops being smart by the time you make O-4. If you are a commander/lieutenant colonel or a captain/colonel and you don't think about the money side of things, you're missing an opportunity and an obligation to make a difference. The last liberty boat has pulled away from fleet landing and you are not on it. Fun, sure, but there's a price to be paid for that extra time ashore.

It's not just about the money. Every part that has to be repaired reduces the time we spend airborne. By ourselves, we may not be able to do as much as we'd like. But as an organization and a team, we can look for efficiencies, track things like mean time between failure rate and turnaround time, explore why actual cost per hour is higher (or lower) than budgeted, work with other organizations to improve on such things as time to replenish parts, and use metrics to tell us where we have gaps and how we are trending. There should be some kind of body that drives a focus in these areas and gets the really serious decision makers personally involved, sitting at the table to address readiness degraders and cost drivers. There really should be organization like that, shouldn't there?

There is: it's called the Naval Aviation Enterprise (NAE), and you know everyone involved in it. The enterprise is a partnership of 39 flag and general officers and senior executives who head the Naval Aviation commands for which you already work and who have clear Title 10/chain of command decision-making authority. It is also a partnership of type wing commodores, Marine air group commanding officers, and their supporting program managers and providers. What makes the NAE special is that while the traditional chain of command operates vertically, the enterprise is horizontal and cooperative. When these leaders meet as the NAE, their business is to advance and sustain Naval Aviations warfighting capabilities at an affordable cost. They do this by focusing on effectiveness, efficiency, and informed decision making that consider cost as a factor in the ability to deliver both current and long-term readiness. They review every type/model/series team's readiness degraders, the health of the carrier fleet, the budgetary impacts to readiness across the fleet, and the state of our maintenance and supply chain. This only scratches the surface of the areas that receive direct attention and action.

The NAE came about because Naval Aviation's readiness cycle and fiscal well being were seen as broken. The "readiness bath tub" was the real deal. I lived it. When it came to flying, it was famine followed by feast followed by famine again. At the same time, we operated in a culture of consumption where our costs per flight hour (CPFH) were growing annually at double-digit rates, and we couldn't explain why. Since then, this enterprise partnership has figured out what's causing most of the problems and fixed a large share of them. To be fair, we don't have flying cars (yet), space travel isn't open to the general public, and I still can't drive a golf ball down the middle of the fairway--and in the same way, not everything is fixed in Naval Aviation. But we aren't broken anymore. Naval Aviation now has a much more cost-wise approach to readiness, and we are increasingly doing things in an enterprise manner that yields cost, reliability, and safety benefits.

It is still about warfighting first. Naval Aviation with an enterprise approach helps to put real numbers to readiness in all the areas that matter--people, equipment, supply, training, ordnance--and to tell us how many resources we need and where to put them to fix the problem. This enterprise approach has played an integral role in many other achievements over the past decade:

* Arresting the growth rate of CPFH by getting it under control to the point that, since 2004, Naval Aviation has used about $2 billion less than it might otherwise have used if not for finding efficiencies across every platform

* Smart and interconnected aircraft and carrier transition planning that takes into consideration all people, equipment, supply, training, and ordnance resources

* Investing in reliability and sustainment initiatives that are expected to pay a nine-to-one return on investment over the life of the initiatives

* Opening communication channels and sharing information to make sure the right players are talking about the right issues to connect the dots and close seams between previously isolated teams.

The NAE is one part of Naval Aviation that distinguishes it as an organization committed to self improvement. It also serves to hold each of us--in military, government, and industry--accountable to delivering what we are asked to provide.

Back when I was a young ensign contemplating that ejection seat and what the instructor pilot said about it, I just thought that's the way things were and the instructor was being funny. Both of us thought of it as a joke, because we never really thought too hard about whether we were getting what we paid for and whether anyone tracked or even cared about those things. In reality, there were thousands of extremely competent people in and out of uniform back then who cared about and tracked those things. But before the NAE, it was less understood, less scrutinized, less holistic, less collaborative, and less transparent, and those of us in Naval Aviation were less empowered to make a difference to change things and improve our warfighting readiness.

I wasn't afraid to fly in a low-bidder ejection seat aircraft in the good old days because I just wanted to fly. Today, because of the NAE, I know--and we all know--a lot more. We are a better, smarter Naval Aviation today than in my active-duty days, and the NAE is one part of that. Naval Aviation is only as good as its people. It works because of your engagement and your focus on real readiness degraders and barriers to ensure we get what we pay for--regardless of high or low bidder.

Caption: Ejection seats--like all our equipment--might have been built by the "lowest bidder," but there are thousands of people in the Naval Aviation Enterprise who ensure that lower costs indeed can go hand in hand with the highest quality. (Photo by PH3 Mark J. Rebilas)

By Capt. Mike Warriner, USN (Ret.)

Capt. Warriner serves as deputy director of the NAE.
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Author:Warriner, Mike
Publication:Naval Aviation News
Date:Jun 22, 2013
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