How can you fight a war when you’re not allowed to repair your own weapons?

I could hardly believe my eyes when I read this report in the New York Times.  I’ve been aware of the problem from a civilian perspective, but I hadn’t realized that the military procurement bureaucracy hadn’t been able to avoid it, either.

A few years ago, I was standing in a South Korean field, knee deep in mud, incredulously asking one of my maintenance Marines to tell me again why he couldn’t fix a broken generator. We needed the generator to support training with the United States Army and South Korean military, and I was generally unaccustomed to hearing anyone in the Marine Corps give excuses for not effectively getting a job done. I was stunned when his frustrated reply was, “Because of the warranty, ma’am.”

At the time, I hadn’t heard of “right-to-repair” and didn’t know that a civilian concept could affect my job in the military. The idea behind right-to-repair is that you (or a third-party you choose) should be able to repair something you own, instead of being forced to rely on the company that originally sold it. This could involve not repairing something (like an iPhone) because doing so would void a warranty; repairs which require specialized tools, diagnostic equipment, data or schematics not reasonably available to consumers; or products that are deliberately designed to prevent an end user from fixing them.

. . .

It has long been considered a problem with the automotive industry, electronics and farming equipment … at least 20 states have considered their own right-to-repair legislation this year.

I first heard about the term from a fellow Marine interested in problems with monopoly power and technology. A few past experiences then snapped into focus. Besides the broken generator in South Korea, I remembered working at a maintenance unit in Okinawa, Japan, watching as engines were packed up and shipped back to contractors in the United States for repairs because “that’s what the contract says.” The process took months.

With every engine sent back, Marines lost the opportunity to practice the skills they might need one day on the battlefield, where contractor support is inordinately expensive, unreliable or nonexistent.

I also recalled how Marines have the ability to manufacture parts using water-jets, lathes and milling machines (as well as newer 3-D printers), but that these tools often sit idle in maintenance bays alongside broken-down military equipment. Although parts from the manufacturer aren’t available to repair the equipment, we aren’t allowed to make the parts ourselves “due to specifications.”

How pervasive is this issue for the most powerful military in the world? And what does it mean for a military that is expected to operate in the most austere and hostile environments to not possess the experience, training or tools to fix its own very technical equipment?

There’s more at the link.  I highly recommend reading the article in full.

Speaking as one who’s spent weeks at a time deployed in the African bush, many hundreds of miles from rear-echelon repair facilities, this is unconscionable.  Any grunt will confirm that if you can’t repair your equipment, you can’t fight with it:  and if you can’t fight with it, it’s useless to you, and may (probably will) in fact be a hindrance rather than a help.  If your enemy’s equipment is working, and yours isn’t, you stand a very good chance of defeat, injury or death.

I had no idea these restrictions applied to products bought by the US military.  I can only hope that the Defense Department does its utmost to get rid of such restrictions as quickly as possible.  I also hope someone brings this problem to the attention of President Trump.  If anyone can cut through military red tape, I guess he can – and in this case, it may literally be a life-or-death issue.

(One wonders how much this plays into the Pentagon’s audit problems, which are alleged to amount to as much as $21 trillion that can’t be properly accounted for.  I’d love to know how much of that sum is due to additional costs caused by such manufacturer “warranties”.)

Peter

10 comments

  1. With regard to the civilian market – cars, farm machinery, and so on – I wonder how much of the lockdown is due to EPA compliance issues.
    … And I’ll just note here that ATF has revoked the right to repair suppressors; replacing parts is now “manufacturing” if I understand it correctly. There are plenty of products out there, the tinkering-with whereof is anathema to politicians of one stripe or another, to regulators (EPA, FCC, ATF, …), to DisneyCorp, etc.

  2. Yeap, and don’t forget that the farmer can’t repair his John Deere tractors…..because “they” still “own” the equipment due to proprietary artificial intelligence/technology.

    Steve

  3. Former DOD contractor here…

    When you are a supplier to the military, you can’t win. Same sort of applies to the purchasing side.

    You want a hammer. You could go to the hardware store and buy a hammer for $20. But a long time ago, someone cheated and bought hammers at their buddy’s store, so now you have to put out an RFP for hammers. That requires a 50 page specification of what a hammer is. Weight, size, materials, color, strength, hardness and warranty are all specified. Manufacturers wanting to fulfill this contract have to go through an expensive process of reading the spec, perhaps redesigning the product, and extensive testing to assure it meets the spec. All of those costs are incorporated in the purchase price.

    You aren’t done once you’ve delivered it. The warranty aspect means you have a long-term obligation you need to fund. This is also in the purchase price. Furthermore, you don’t get economy of scale on an assembly line that produces 500 special hammers when you already have an assembly line producing thousands. Even if the hammers are identical, the DOD ones need special handling, inspections, and testing.

    Now some “journalist” will come along and point out that the military spends way too much on hammers. They waste money buying $150 hammers when they could just buy $20 ones. They make it look like the military is colluding with manufacturers to boost the price.

    Your poor grunt is caught in the gristmill here. If he voids the warranty by repairing the equipment, he’s going against doctrine and potentially rendering the equipment valueless. If he follows policy, the repair happens (slowly) under the terms of the contract, and people on the sidelines shake their heads in disbelief and disapproval.

    I don’t have an answer. I don’t miss this aspect of my former life.

  4. If the commanding officer has any initiative, shit gets repaired, regardless of whether or not it’s supposed to happen. I don’t recall encountering a warranty issue, but I’ve had MULTIPLE captains who, when faced with underway limiting repairs that were NOT supposed to be done at a ship’s force level, decided that staying (or getting) underway was more important than following the rules. They got away with this too. We fixed a lot of DLRs (depot level repairables), but I think the most impressive one (which I was not involved with – I’m a Radio/IT guy both in and out of the military) was a repair that was supposed to require major shipyard support, which we didn’t have the repair parts on board for, and which WAS NOT supposed to get fixed at sea. The captain put out a call over the 1MC for all ships force personnel with welding, machining, or mechanical experience, and after two days of three knots to nowhere, we were back in business.
    The skills to do the repairs exist. You just need a skipper with the balls to let the people with the skills loose.

  5. As a rule, any time you read about the military spending an outrageous sum on something that sounds like it should be simple and cheap, there’s a Congressionally imposed accounting or procurement rule in back of it. The military is capable of thundering idiocy on its own, but Congress usually gets there first.

    When I read that the DOD cannot account for X trillion dollars of its budget the following questions spring to mind;

    As a percentage of budget, how does this compare to the rest of the Federal government? (My bet is that, if anything, it’s lower)

    As a percentage of budget, how does this compare to Congress in particular?

    How much is this is because labyrinthine accounting practices, mandated by Congress, create discrepancies that exist only on paper. (I’m not sure how that would be possible, but suspect that if it is, Congress has done it)

    How much can reasonably be attributed to “When stuff is going ‘BOOM’ and people are shooting at you, somehow filling out the proper forms isn’t the first thing on your mind, and later your memory is likely to be a little hazy”.

  6. I recall over thirty years ago, coming on a sailor repairing a special purpose land vehicle. He threw away a windshield wiper motor and arm assembly. I asked what he was doing. He explained that was how the manual called for a windshield wiper blade replacement. I checked it out and he was right. You threw the whole thing away.

  7. I spent approximately 30 year in various aspects of the nuclear power industry and I can assure you that the evils described by lpdbw are not unique to the military. Obviously when building a nuclear poewer plant you want the stuff that is critical to safety to be what it is advertised to be and capable of meeting it’s design function. That being said, things that have no impact on safety, but are required to keep the plant running often get the same treatment as the primary piping systems because its easier to write one-size-fits-all procurement specs. Then you get the good idea fairy who decides that because its a NUCLEAR plant that everything should withstand high levels of radiation even if some items will never be exposed to radiation above background. When we were building 100 or so plants in the ’70s with the possibility of even more to come, manufacturers were eager to meet the often silly requirements, for a price, of course, now not so much. With no “approved” spares available at any price, instead of buying a $500 component (that should cost $20) you have to spend $5,000 worth of engineering to allow you to use the $20 off-the-shelf part in an application that may be important to plant operation, but in no way affects plant safety. Glad I’m retired.

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