HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- As the nation's defense budget draws down and the number of U.S. troops deployed declines, the Aviation and Missile Command's focus remains on ensuring Soldier readiness for any contingency operation.

And, to succeed in that focus, AMCOM and its life cycle management partners must view readiness as a team sport, said AMCOM's commander Maj. Gen. Jim Richardson.

Speaking to industry and military leaders attending the 42nd annual Joseph P. Cribbins Aviation Product Symposium at Huntsville, Ala.'s Von Braun Center on Nov. 19, Richardson said, "It's about that Soldier on the ground. You've been there for that Soldier and we've got to continue to be there for that Soldier. Readiness is the number one priority. There is no other number one priority. The aviation enterprise is in lock step with the chief of staff of the Army (Gen. Mark Milley)."

At the Cribbins symposium in 2014, Richardson reviewed AMCOM's mission plan through 2025. He updated that plan at this year's symposium.

"The environment is changing," Richardson said. "Why we do things is because it's the way we've always done it. We have to break that culture going forward."

But, to understand how far Army aviation has come since the beginning of the Global War on Terrorism, Richardson recalled the conditions of the past.

"When I was a battalion commander in 2000, we had aging aircraft and there was no such thing as Reset (where helicopters returning from deployment are inspected, and mechanical or structural issues are repaired before returning the helicopter to its unit). We had many different series of aircraft. We had aircraft cracks and corrosion, and field rates were about 10 percent of SSAs (supply support activities). Only 10 percent of the time we had the parts we needed," he said.

Because of aging aircraft, airframe cracks and corrosion, multiple aircraft configurations, multiple maintenance contracts, high back orders, a Department of Defense-mandated inventory reduction and other issues, aircraft readiness rates prior to the Global War on Terrorism were at risk.

It was the aircraft maintenance crews that ensured helicopters kept flying in those pre-war days by finding innovative ways to sustain aircraft, he said.

"All of a sudden, we started deploying. During those days, you supported me. You made it happen and we got better every time," Richardson told the audience, referring to the improving aviation capabilities between his six wartime deployments.

"There was no production for the optempo going into it. It took money and years to get production up. We started partnerships with the depots and did a lot to increase our capability in Army aviation because we had the money to do that."

Improvements during the early years of war included Preset and Reset programs that brought Army aircraft up to top performance along with the consolidation and expansion of aviation field maintenance, improved supply chain management, new depot maintenance partnerships, increased numbers of logistics assistance representatives assigned to support aviation units, and more training and deployable capabilities.

With those improvements, the Army took a big step toward defining the aviation path for the future, Richardson said. Army aviation achieved higher readiness rates, developed an expeditionary mindset, centralized contracts, modernized fleets, corrected structural issues and reduced backorders -- setting the standards for developing the flexible and agile aviation readiness program that exists today and will continue through 2025.

But, to ensure sustainable readiness for the future, Army aviation will have to find a way to breach the gap between the high cost of owning and maintaining aircraft, and the reduction of available resources, Richardson said. As Army aviation moves forward, he said the Army must ensure Soldiers can take on the maintenance mission while the contractor-led maintenance mission declines.

"I'm putting the burden on the warfighter," he said. "I'm really zeroed in on readiness and maintenance. The cost of ownership is up while the amount of resources is down. How we enable sustainment and readiness is through the life cycle enterprise. Readiness is a team sport."

Richardson said the future of aviation readiness should focus on reliability, sustainability and maintainability by finding ways to reduce long-term sustainment costs through the acquisition process, developing a comprehensive plan to transition the aviation fleet to sustainment, developing depot partnerships, utilizing condition-based management programs, improving reliability of aircraft and ensuring the health of the organic industrial base.

"We need to start writing standards for sustainment and reliability. Thirty percent of the cost of aircraft is the acquisition of aircraft while 70 percent of the cost of aircraft is in sustainment," Richardson said.

In the development and acquisition of aircraft, AMCOM is a supporting effort. But, once aircraft go into sustainment, AMCOM has the main effort. For that reason, "AMCOM has to be sitting at the table on every milestone decision" involving the aircraft acquisition process and then fielding, he said.

"From day one, when we start to field a piece of equipment to the Soldier in the field, the Soldier needs to have the tools, parts and manuals at the same time to sustain that aircraft. It should happen simultaneously, not six or seven years after fielding," Richardson said.

Along with the tools and parts, Soldiers should also have the training needed to take advantage of the all the sustainment-related systems on today's aircraft, and maintenance schedules should be established before fielding, he said.

"Are we doing the right maintenance tasks? Are we changing the right parts based on the information we have and are we doing it right?" Richardson asked.

Instead of a contractor workforce "turning wrenches" on aircraft, the future will put more Soldiers on the maintenance line at combat aviation brigades, he said. AMCOM will utilize its logistics assistance representatives to work with Soldiers and to train Soldiers, and on-site Soldier training augmented with classes at the LAR University, at Corpus Christi Army Depot and at the annual AMCOM 101 meetings.

"It's about training and about the team. Readiness is a team sport. It's Soldiers turning wrenches and the enterprise working together and industry coming to the fight," Richardson said.