I distinctly remember a frustrating experience with the Navy Flight Hour Program (FHP) while serving as operations officer in Strike Fighter Squadron 94 (VFA-94) in 2011. We were forward deployed to Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, as the only Hornet squadron in the Navy’s unit deployment plan. We had a ton of flight hours, normally an operations officer’s dream. It was the beginning of the holiday season, however, and the rest of the air station was looking forward to a holiday schedule, including long weekends, multiple no-fly days, and reduced field hours and base support. Executing our FHP grant was going to be difficult. Trying to burn our quota, we were flying 28-30 sorties a day and maximizing time aloft, exhausting our maintenance department and aviators in the process. With two expensive wars going on, a budgetary crisis unfolding, and service life on F/A-18Cs rapidly depleting, I assumed the FHP manager would be thrilled to hear that VFA-94 was willing to turn in 150 hours to be redistributed for other requirements. The response was, “In light of the challenging fiscal environment, this is no time to be turning in flight hours.” What? We are strapped for cash so do not try to save money? It was the age-old budgetary dilemma: “If you give it back now, they will take it next time.”
Fast forward to Naval Air Station Lemoore, California, in 2013. Those same F/A-18Cs were two years older, and even the F/A-18 E/F fleet was beginning to show the stress of 12 years of high operational tempo (optempo). Routine inspections on Super Hornets began turning up various problems that required planning and estimator (P&E) inspections or requests for engineering information (REI) from civilian engineers. Unfortunately, many of these experts had been furloughed or had moved on as a result of sequestration. The P&Es and REIs stacked up, and jets requiring minor inspections sat grounded for months. Delayed inspections led to further maintenance requirements that could be accomplished only by other professionals similarly affected by sequestration. West Coast Hornet aviation nearly ground to a halt. There was plenty of flight hour money, which could be shifted to the engineering teams, right? We could hire more engineers and pay for their expenses, right? Wrong. Once again, money designated for one purpose could not be moved or redistributed.
I joined VFA-147 in Lemoore in early 2013, the day the squadron returned from a nine-month deployment. Fortunately, we remained in a surge status through November of that year and were untouched by the P&E and REI scourge that was grounding other squadrons’ jets. We had copious amounts of flight hours, high manning levels, and well-maintained jets. Once our surge status expired, however, our manning spigot shut off and our supply chain priority went from first to last, but our expected optempo (FHP) remained relatively high. Our jets began a transition from the APG-73 to the APG-79 active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, which put additional strain on maintenance. Each jet spent two to four weeks in modifications and always came back with severe environmental control system issues stemming from the added cooling requirements of the AESA. We were forced to fly our available jets more, which drove up maintenance requirements. As jets went “down” quicker for maintenance, the burden on flyable jets increased and we began the “death spiral” process again.
These pressures peaked in the spring of 2015, just as we began a stretch of detachments for the next seven months. This combination (decreased manning, fewer flyable jets, increased maintenance requirements, reduced supply priority, and heavy optempo) intensified when we finally fell victim to various P&Es and REIs downing our older jets, some of which did not fly again for more than a year.
Fortunately, the FHP process has improved recently. Several breakthroughs in moving money across funding lines have been realized, and there has been a tangible reduction in pressure to always execute FHP. That said, commanding officers (COs) still go into every quarter with the goal of flying their grant. If a squadron turns in 100 hours at the end of the quarter it is not viewed as a failure, but repurposing FHP money still tends to be reactionary.
The next logical step is to push monetary decisions further down the chain of command to focus funding where it is needed, not simply where it was planned to go two years earlier in the budgeting process. The Navy should continue toward a more fluid money management system that allows funds to be shifted between accounts, redistributed within funding lines, or returned to higher echelons to enhance efficiency, effectiveness, and responsibility.
Perhaps the best lens through which to view such a system would be a “push vs pull” supply chain analogy. The potential benefits are many. Such a system would maximize readiness, manage optempo, and increase aircraft service life while allowing for money movements across funding lines when and where needed.
PUSH-VS-PULL SUPPLY CHAINS
A supply chain is a flow of raw supplies to generate a finished product for a customer. For example, bread, meat, and toppings are supplied to create sandwiches. Though supply chains generally are a hybrid, most can be thought of as either “push” or “pull” systems, depending on their reaction to customer demand. Pull processes are initiated directly in response to a customer order—like a custom-made sandwich at Subway. For pull systems to function efficiently, customer demand must be known with a high degree of certainty. Push processes, on the other hand, anticipate customer needs based on forecasts. Pre-made sandwiches at a deli, for example, are more speculative.1
Choosing between push and pull supply chains is situationally dependent; both come with advantages and drawbacks. Anticipatory push systems based on accurate forecasts yield fast reaction times, while pull chains tend to be slower and less responsive. The flip side is that there is a risk of shortages or excesses in raw materials in a push supply chain as forecasts are inexact. Shortages preclude the final product from reaching the customer in time; excess can result in spoilage or waste. Pull systems, despite being sluggish, avoid waste by responding specifically to customer demand. Again, this mix of pros and cons leads to most supply chains being a combination of both.
THE CURRENT FHP PROCESS
FHP is governed by two Navy instructions* that set forth comprehensive monthly requirements for aircraft, mission equipment, aircrew manning, flying hours, and readiness for squadrons as they progress through the Fleet Readiness Training Plan (FRTP). Milestones—referred to as “R+ months”—are set for each unit at specific times in the FRTP. Commander, Naval Air Forces (CNAF), publishes R+ months based on the Master Aviation Plan (MAP), which delineates where each squadron is in the FRTP.2 That this document affects flight hours obviously is of interest, but how it lays out aircraft requirements also is worth mentioning. Aircraft standards consist of flightline standard (the number of jets potentially available to fly) and ready-for-training/ready basic aircraft (RFT/RBA), i.e., jets in an “up” status.3 Think of flightline standard as “shadows on the ramp” and RBA as flyers. For Super Hornets, typically flightline standard is two above RBA (six jets to make four flyers, for example).
As of 2014, the Optimized Fleet Response Plan (OFRP)is the Navy’s new model. It is designed to optimize the process, as the name suggests. “While reaffirming the importance of the rotational base of naval forward presence, changes in the global landscape have demonstrated the need for an optimized process to ensure continuous availability of manned, maintained, equipped, and trained Navy forces capable of surging forward on short notice while also maintaining long-term sustainability of the force (emphasis added).”4
With that background, it helps to look at FHP through a supply chain lens. The budgeting or program objective memorandum (POM) process for FHP funding runs on a two-year cycle centered around predictions based on the MAP. Think of the FHP process as a customer/contractor/supplier relationship. The Navy’s customers—which, depending on one’s view, could include the President, Congress, and the American people—come to CNAF (the contractor) each year (two years in advance as part of the POM cycle) and demand naval aviation’s product, which is combat readiness. As the contractor, CNAF then subcontracts out to the squadrons, which act as the suppliers. CNAF provides each squadron with specific capabilities, most notably flight hours and aircraft, through FHP based on the R+ month and expects a certain level of readiness to satisfy its customers. If a squadron over-executes flight hours it is inefficient, providing an excess of a perishable item (readiness) while spending more money than budgeted. When it under-executes it may provide less readiness than required, failing to meet the customer’s demand. This equates to a push supply chain, as hours are pushed to the squadrons to meet a forecasted demand of readiness.
As it stands now, there is a limited version of a hybrid push-pull supply chain in place for the FHP. CNAF has made it clear that squadrons can return hours, almost no questions asked, assuming they can meet their required readiness. The FHP manager can push extra hours when needed, reallocate unused hours, and repurpose money across accounts. This is progress. To advance further, expanding and making the FHP manager’s ability to reallocate FHP more flexible would improve conditions for the people, planes, and programs of naval aviation.
Flight hours are a means to an end (readiness), not an end in and of themselves; however, in many respects we have come to view executed hours as the end product. This is a mistake. Remember, one of the weaknesses of a pure push system is potential waste/spoilage. Hours are spoiled if they cannot be executed and wasted if they do not buy readiness or buy excess readiness that will expire before needed. Push systems anticipate demand based on accurate forecasts, which can be hard to get right, especially using two-year old data from the MAP and POM.
One idea from supply chain management is to push raw materials for assembly ahead of time and then pull the finished product according to demand signal.5 This would be relatively simple for aviation. The major raw material that goes into the finished readiness product is flight hours. Allowing individual squadrons to pull flight hours needed to generate required readiness based on their near-term accurate forecasts would result in greater readiness with less spoilage. Squadron-level forecasts not only would include readiness required, but also would take into account operational requirements, personnel and unit optempo, aircraft status, maintenance requirements, and manning levels.
SWITCHING TO A PULL MODEL
Commanders must strike a balance between maintaining operational prowess and taking advantage of a planned maintenance period. Failure to do so may sacrifice long-term aircraft health and the squadron’s morale. The maintenance phase allows the squadron to prepare its aircraft for deployment and ensure its troops are well-rested and fresh for the start of the demanding work-up cycle. A balance is required, and to that end, a flexible FHP would be helpful.
The CNAF flight hour program manager can already adjust flight hours, shift funds between squadrons, or repurpose money. That simply needs to happen in a more active fashion, sooner in the process.
The first step requires a slight paradigm shift. While in some ways the President, Congress, and the American people are the customers, we can also think of an individual squadron as the customer. The squadron knows, with better accuracy than anyone else, how many hours it can execute to generate the required level of readiness. Therefore, a pull system would respond specifically to customer (in this case, squadron) demand.
Taking into account many factors, squadrons would work with the FHP manager to pull the required hours. More hours may be needed based on upcoming detachments, increases in predicted sortie lengths, or heavier training and qualification requirements. At the other end of the spectrum, needed hours might decrease as a result of predicted bad weather, decreased field and range availability, or holiday leave schedules. A squadron may have eight to ten jets available during the quarter with no additional maintenance requirements. Conversely, forecasting only three flyable jets based on depot-level inductions, transferring “up” jets to a deploying squadron, or accepting a jet that has not flown in 18 months may decrease the ability to fly heavily.
Manning is also important. There could be a crunch for aircrew qualifications. If pilots have not been flying much, executing the full grant could be beneficial. Or the aircrew and maintainers could be tired. Did the squadron just get back from deployment? Maybe it has just 10 of 18 pilots. Flying the junior officers 22 hours a month while they juggle five ground jobs and stand duty twice a week may be counterproductive. Perhaps the chiefs’ mess is undermanned and the maintenance team lacks experience.
Myriad factors may necessitate under- or over-executing. Experience, proficiency, and flight hours logged are never a bad thing. However, these factors can make execution impossible or painful. Regardless of the reasons, it would be more effective to decide early to reduce pressure on the squadron and move the money where it is needed.
How would the process work? Imagine three fictitious squadrons, VFA-X, VFA-Y, and VFA-Z, all in the maintenance period and funded at 750 flight hours per quarter. Two quarters, or six months, is about the right time horizon for squadrons to “place their orders” for hours, allowing enough lead time to repurpose funds/hours while not being overly prognostic. VFA-X requests more than the standard allotment, while the other two squadrons both need to under-execute. Hours are shifted to VFA-X and the rest of the money is used where needed. Perhaps one squadron decided to under-execute because of a specific supply or maintenance shortfall. Repurposing flight hour money for that maintenance problem now could mean executing fully next quarter. Perhaps useful for naval aviation as a whole would be an “unfunded list.” This could consist of consumables, parts in short supply, engineering support, support equipment, or capabilities (such as AESA radar kits). Scaling back on flying when necessary to shift effort and funds to maintenance and parts would make executing flight hours easier and more productive later.
There are some potential pitfalls. First, FHP funding currently drives maintenance funding, supply priority, and manning levels. A solution would be to decouple these from actual flight hours, leaving maintenance, supply, and manning predicated on the R+ month requirements. Excess money would come from hours only. Second, there is a reporting and oversight consideration. If 750 hours is the mark based on the R+ month, there will be a tendency to report based on that denominator. This should be avoided. If VFA-Z pulls and executes 500 hours, instead of 750, the report should indicate 100 percent execution, not 67 percent. As hours are shifted and repurposed, the reporting should reflect that. This may sound like budgetary heresy, but the accountants must adapt.
This idea is a possible solution to a real problem that has plagued the strike fighter community for years. Hopefully some of these suggestions will be tried. Naval aviation has made incremental changes recently, and a flexible “pull” construct for flight hours would be a viable next step to save money while preserving our airplanes and our people.
I do not advocate cutting flight hours just for the sake of saving money. I understand the benefits of junior officers finishing their initial tours with 900 hours in the aircraft instead of 700. That experience is almost irreplaceable. That said, I would rather see a junior officer leave his or her first squadron with 700 hours and pick up another 600 as a department head, instead of leaving with 900 and getting only 300 later amid a crumbling fleet. In the shorter term, a CO’s decision to scale back may reap significant increases in future flight time, when the squadron needs it most. Over a four-month span, most aircrew likely would prefer 10, 10, 10, and 20 hours leading up to a significant work-up event, instead of 12.5 hours each month, despite ending up with the same total in their log books.
My maintainers often told me, “We can do maintenance or we can fly; you pick.” Though the choices are not always black and white, this saying definitely echoes through the strike fighter community during the challenging maintenance phase of the OFRP. Squadrons need more flexibility in how and when they spend their money, with the ability to allocate flight hours to maintenance when needed. If naval aviation continues to “eat its seed corn,” it may soon face a long, hungry winter
*COMNAVAIRPAC/COMNAVAIRLANT INSTRUCTION 3510.11C and OPNAV INSTRUCTION 3000.15A, Type/Model/Series (T/M/S) Readiness and Resource Standards for Naval Air Force Units and Optimized Fleet Response Plan (OFRP.)
1. Sunil Chopra and Peter Meindl. Supply Chain Management: Strategy, Planning, and Operation (Pearson Education, 2013), 10.
2. Type/Model/Series (T/M/S) Readiness and Resource Standards for Naval Air Force Units, “3510.11C,” COMANAVAIRPACINST/COMNAVAIRLANTINST 3510.11C: 2.
4. Optimized Fleet Response Plan, “3000.15A,” OPNAVINST 3000.15A: 1.
5. Chopra and Meindl. Supply Chain Management: Strategy, Planning, and Operation, 10-12.