Based on our experiences serving as battalion commanders within an armored brigade combat team, we have outlined the most important building blocks to assist organizational leaders in establishing and fostering a maintenance culture. Serving as an organizational leader in the most powerful Army in the world represents an incredible opportunity! Preparation before assuming positions of this magnitude is paramount, especially from an intellectual perspective. The last time they commanded was likely ten years previously at the company level for most battalion commanders. This divide in time and space is massive, and your attention to detail can help shape success rapidly in your organization.
During command, the most earth-shattering epiphany is the realization that you (as the battalion commander), along with your battalion command sergeant major, are the most experienced leaders in the organization. Therefore, the commander’s dialogue and directives demand precision and clarity to ease friction for subordinates during execution. Although a clear commander’s intent is often thought of in relation to field training, it’s just as impactful in home station functions, such as establishing a maintenance culture. There is never conflict between maintenance and training. Conducting maintenance is training, and its effect, when properly implemented, will pay significant dividends towards increasing operational readiness in support of decisive action operations.
Based on competing operational priorities, maintenance operations can be under-prioritized or largely delegated to sustainment leadership. Over time, lack of an established unit maintenance culture translates to reduced leader involvement, inefficient processes, and long-term impacts on equipment readiness. This article aims to highlight key foundational processes and intellectual approaches designed to shape the deliberate establishment of a maintenance culture in any type of organization within our Army.
Establishing an Effective BCT Maintenance Culture. The sustainment warfighting function exists to extend the commander’s operational reach, sustain operational tempo, and enable freedom of action. The brigade combat team maintenance and logistics synchronization meetings are the most powerful executive-level assemblies’ which provide detailed synchronization of resources and organizational priorities. The brigade support battalion commander serves as the chief of sustainment with a distinct responsibility to chair these meetings. The brigade executive officer and support operations officer serve as the meeting facilitators. The production of executive-level notes allows the brigade combat team commander to leverage or reprioritize resources to address identified gaps. The published notes also serve as a key progression or regression indicator, with the goal to move the readiness needle forward continuously. Battalion executive officers and maintenance warrant officers combined with forward support company commanders and company executive officers represent the preponderance of the audience and intellectual body of executioners. Brigade combat team leaders must take full advantage of external resources designed to assist them: division/corps G-4, sustainment brigade, Army Field Support Brigade, Defense Logistics Agency, and other enablers specifically assigned to your area of operations to ensure holistic success. Resources are finite; the preponderance of brigade combat team allocation stems from your specific organization’s division or higher priority designation. As organizational leaders, it’s our responsibility to understand available resources to stay ahead of potential resourcing shortfalls that may hinder operational readiness. The goal is to establish a maintenance culture that effectively transitions to any operational environment. This mandates continuous leader involvement with a detailed task and purpose that adds holistic credibility to the maintenance program. The standard is to maintain equipment at the 10/20 level that entails: equipment fully mission capable with all faults properly identified installed or ordered, services performed and up to date, modification work orders applied, and authorized basic issues items and components of end items are present and serviceable. The goal is to prevent mechanical failures by establishing a deliberate service program committed to disciplined execution. This structure allows the highest levels of operational readiness, thus bringing the maximum levels of destruction possible to the enemy in combat.
Recommendations. Make implicit standards explicit very early in your command, and highly encourage leader involvement at all levels. Overdue services, delinquencies, and failure to secure supplies, equipment, or oil samples are key indicators that leaders are not involved. Publish the standard upfront and implement the appropriate forecasting tools to avoid future failure. Finally, establish positive relationships with sustainment professionals in the echelons above brigade to assist your organization in meeting the prescribed Army maintenance standards. The established relationships will provide valuable assistance in reaching prescribed Army maintenance standards.
Establishing Clear Battalion Level Expectations. Like other parts of unit culture, a maintenance culture begins with leaders establishing clear expectations and setting priorities. One shouldn’t assume that leaders in your unit have experience with effective maintenance programs. Whether mounted or dismounted, leaders and Soldiers arrive at your unit with diverse backgrounds and varied experiences. This is a true strength of our military, but not all of these skills are directly applicable to building an effective maintenance culture. Clearly articulating foundational guidance such as motor pool uniform standards, formation requirements, and maintenance battle rhythm will help ensure a shared understanding. Outlining leader expectations is also important; where do you expect commanders and first sergeants to be during maintenance operations? What are the unit standards for DA Form 5988-E, Equipment Maintenance and Inspection Worksheet, completion, submission, and fault validation? Furthermore, how can Soldiers and leaders be right if there is no published standard to emulate? Delegating these decisions solely to executive officers or maintenance technicians can cause subordinates to misunderstand the prioritization of maintenance operations. Executive officers, warrant officers, and motor sergeants are critical as the execution arm of maintenance operations. However, they do not establish battalion-level priorities or develop an effective maintenance culture single-handedly. Remember, it is your (the commander's) maintenance program and your responsibility to set the tone and culture of the organization. Simply put, identify foundational unit standards and articulate principles across the organization to shape the establishment of a maintenance culture.
Recommendations. Start with a maintenance terrain walk with battalion leadership and determine the status of your maintenance program, including pride, ownership, leadership involvement, and process efficiency according to division and brigade standards. Determine your shortfalls and conduct a subsequent terrain walk with company and platoon leadership to articulate clear expectations.
Supporting companies through synchronized battalion programs. In addition to setting expectations, commanders should resource and synchronize battalion-level maintenance programs. Although programs such as the Army Oil Analysis Program (AOAP), Test Measurement Diagnostic Equipment (TMDE), and Overage Repairable Item List are generally thought to be the domain of company executive officers to navigate, company programs can suffer in silence if not resourced and monitored at the battalion level. Field training exercises and leader transitions make continuity for company programs challenging. Leveraging battalion systems to track requirements and increase awareness can empower subordinates and increase efficiency. The Global Combat Support System-Army (GCSS-A) is the Army’s system of record. Using this system as a forecasting tool to identify future requirements and decision points can add tremendous value to your program. Looking ahead towards projected requirements is always better than looking behind at delinquencies. An example of a company-level action having implications on battalion readiness is weapons gauges from the forward support company armament section. Although clearly within the forward support company commander/executive officer responsibilities, delinquent armament gauges could leave the battalion without the ability to conduct annual weapons gauging and impact weapons qualification, live-fire exercise requirements, and rapid deployability. With battalion-level forecasting through GCSS-A, the battalion executive officer or battalion maintenance officer could recommend early calibration or adjacent unit coordination as a mitigating measure before the battalion losing a critical capability. Although in this specific example, we recommend having two sets of weapon gauges with a six-month off-set calibration, so the unit never loses the ability to gauge weapons.
Recommendation. Use GCSS-A as a forecasting tool and publish requirements to increase awareness of upcoming services, AOAP, TMDE, etc. This resource provides companies the necessary information to execute their company maintenance programs and reduces delinquencies.
Supply Support Activity (SSA) Operations. The SSA is unequivocally the nucleus of logistical operations. This single brigade support team entity serves as the catalyst to improve operational readiness and is governed by Army Techniques Publication (ATP) 4-42.2, Supply Support Activity Operations. The SSA consists of the following sections: stock control, receiving, issue, storage, and turn-in. Commanders at every echelon must devote time and personal energy to SSA operations to ensure the return on this precious investment permeates throughout the entire formation. Commanders must instill discipline into daily activities: clearing unit SSA bins, company commander and first sergeant weekly visits, eliminating free issue through responsible supply ownership, and operationalizing SSA operations (executing operations with a tactical logistics package mindset). The Army Materiel Command owns the SSA, which is operated by American tax dollars through the Defense-Wide Working Capital Fund. As Soldiers, we have a fiduciary responsibility to safeguard resources combined with responsible financial execution. Commanders must ensure their unit-level 92As are properly trained on GCSS-A functions with appropriate supervision in parts ordering. Finally, the supply chain management decision/execution loop must be properly closed by executing the post goods issue and post goods receipt. This execution displays prudent management of supplies that affect tactical, operational, and strategic level operations. Battalion commanders play an integral role in the preservation of our national supply system. The inability to deliberately manage this system will produce detrimental effects within our Army over time.
Recommendation. Conduct maintenance meetings at the SSA monthly and execute BCT level SSA terrain walks with the BCT CDR. In addition, develop a certification for 92As, publish the inbound deliveries reports that displays supplies at the SSA ready for pick up, and operationalize SSA pick-ups utilizing operations orders and mission briefs which improves tactical operations in field environments.
Maintenance Reporting: How to reinforce culture and unit priorities. There are many ways to establish internal reporting requirements that reinforce maintenance culture and unit priorities. We recommend against structuring your battalion reporting or commander's critical information requirement solely with operational readiness (OR) rates and the equipment status report (ESR) in mind. We believe it is difficult to build an effective battalion maintenance culture using only the ESR and OR rates. These tools do not accurately evaluate the building blocks of maintenance culture, such as leader involvement and maintenance efficiency rates. With a little creative thinking, commanders can establish maintenance reporting that gauges maintenance culture while actively supporting leader development. We recommend reporting that highlights a high-payoff resource that impacts all companies, such as the shop office. If the very-small-aperture terminal is non-mission capable, the battalion has lost the ability to dispatch vehicles, order Class IX parts, and update the ESR. How long do you want your BN XO to work the issue before they make you aware? 12 hours? 24 hours? Furthermore, when do you notify your brigade commander and recommend a shift in resources? Whatever the answer, this example helps show the criticality of maintenance reporting and how it can support commander decision points. Other critical battalion-level resources impact routine maintenance, such as welding, fabrication, and armament capabilities. With the help of your maintenance leadership, identify battalion-level resources that are mission-critical and determine a reporting framework. Let’s shift a bit to talking about maintenance reporting that supports leader development. A good example of this is controlled substitutions. Although your warrant officer is routinely first to identify a potential controlled substitution, the discussion and decision should involve the gaining and losing company commanders. This small step requires the commanders to understand and articulate the maintenance action and develop a recommendation based on battalion readiness priorities. Whatever the decision, the knowledge gained over time develops leaders and helps to foster unit maintenance culture.
Recommendation. Establish a battalion maintenance reporting framework aligned with critical capabilities and use routine maintenance actions as opportunities for leader development in your formation. For example, we would recommend aligning maintenance reporting with assets unique to your formation or that do not have redundancy such as the VSAT, overhead lift, and armament capabilities.
Ethical ESR Management. When does the deliberate or untimely reporting of non-mission-capable equipment on the ESR become unethical? The epistemology of the ESR correlates the methodology associated with the development of tactical plans and the equipment/resources available to the maneuver commander which he can employ against the enemy. Thus, the ESR represents a binary contract between higher and subordinate level commanders, which stimulates a concrete level of trust that equipment is prepared or unprepared for combat. So when does prolonged troubleshooting or failure to correctly report the operational status of assigned equipment become unethical? This boils down to communication. Certainly, some faults may not seem prudent to add on the ESR for instance: control substitution, parts on hand, or active troubleshooting. However, there must be a published timeframe that all leaders understand and follow. Most units incorporate a 72-hour timeline; we would argue this is too long based on the pace and tempo in combat. Regardless of the established timeline, leaders must have the fortitude to report what’s truly non-mission capable without fear of reprisal or retribution from superior leaders. Some potential indicators of inaccurate reporting are severe degradation of the operational readiness rate within the first 36 hours of an exercise, the inability to perform rollout exercises, and lack of in-transit visibility of Class IX parts flow. Establishing an effective and efficient maintenance system takes the proactive involvement of every leader in the organization. Once the organization has established a true maintenance culture, its ability to wage effective combat operations will significantly increase.
Battalion commanders set the tone for the organization’s culture and climate. If maintenance and sustainment are commander priorities, the behavior and actions of the formation will reflect that. The commander must also certify their formation on maintenance practices just as it does for battle drills and live-fire scenarios. Although the BSB CDR serves as the Chief of Sustainment for the BCT, every commander plays a vital role in establishing an effective maintenance culture that supports operational requirements. The effectiveness of your formation to execute the assigned mission depends on the durability of the equipment and Soldiers within the formation.
Recommendation. Establish a binding contract within your organization that is easily understood and simple to execute at the lowest level. Implementing the six-hour rule is a prudent technique. This rule entails the following guidelines: (1) Equipment that requires more than six hours to troubleshoot must enter the ESR. (2) If troubleshooting occurs under six hours and the equipment can be repaired within 24 hours equipment does not enter the ESR. (3) If the part is on hand, it can be installed and repaired within 24 hours equipment does not enter the ESR. (4) Repairs longer than 24 hours will always enter the ESR. The standard 72 hours of troubleshooting is unrealistic, and it provides significantly less clarity on the ESR, detracting from the power this document is designed to portray to commanders.
Lt. Col. Colin P. Mahle is currently attending the Senior Service College as part of the George C. Marshall Scholars program at the School of Advanced Military Studies. Previously, he was the Executive Officer to the Commanding General of the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Lt Col. Mahle commanded the 4th Battalion, 6th Infantry Regiment, 3rd ABCT, 1st Armored Division, located at Fort Bliss, Texas from April 2018 to May 2020. He is a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute, Ranger Course, Airborne, Pathfinder and Joint Firepower courses.
Lt. Col. Charles L. Montgomery currently serves as the senior sustainment trainer at the joint multinational readiness center located in Hohenfels, Germany. He holds a master’s degree from the School of Advanced Military Studies in operational art and science.
This content is published online in conjunction with the July-Sept 2021 issue of Army Sustainment.