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.
. . .
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”.)