Boeing may have the most diverse support workload of any aircraft company. The Boeing military fleet worldwide includes fighters; airlifters; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft; and helicopters. Global and national fleet sizes range from single to four digits, and almost every U.S. ally has some Boeing hardware. The result is that Boeing offers a correspondingly large range of support options.

The end of C-17 production was announced two weeks ago, after several years in which Boeing had eked out production of this big and specialized aircraft with a combination of top-up sales to the U.S. Air Force and small-number sales to non-U.S. operators (the largest, to India, is 10 aircraft). Boeing credits this partly to a support concept that minimizes the headaches that can result from a small fleet.

The Globemaster Integrated Sustainment Program (GISP) is the second-largest revenue-earner in Boeing's Defense, Space & Security division, second only to the KC-46 tanker, grossing $1.8 billion in 2012 and directly employing 1,500 people. The worldwide fleet is supported by Boeing through a performance-based logistics (PBL) contract under which the company commits to continuous reductions in cost per flying hour. According to Boeing, cost per flight hour was reduced by 29% from fiscal 2004 to fiscal 2011.

One key to making GISP work is what Boeing calls a “virtual fleet”; GISP regards all C-17s as part of the same fleet. For example, if NATO's joint fleet at Papa air base in Hungary needs a part and it is available from Qatar's stock in Doha, the part will be shipped from Qatar to Hungary and a replacement will be dispatched to Qatar.

In turn, an essential enabler for the virtual fleet is the fact that all C-17As are as close as possible to identical. The current baseline is the Block 18 configuration, and all aircraft are regularly updated as part of routine work packages (the C-17 is not designed for regular depot maintenance). The C-17 makes extensive use of onboard monitoring to detect discrepancies and communicate them to the GISP management system. The metrics are continuously revised in the light of operational experience.

The GISP contract is designed to address the dilemma of PBL. The customer does not want to be locked into a lifetime monopoly relationship with the contractor, but the contractor does not want to invest in improvements that may be rendered worthless if a competitor takes the contract away. The contract is locked in for five years, with a five-year option contingent on meeting performance and cost targets. When and if the option is firmed up, another five-year option is added. This gives Boeing time to recoup investments such as developing and qualifying replacements for line-replaceable units that do not perform well.

GISP meets the U.S. requirement that a fixed percentage of military support pass through government depots by subcontracting work to those organizations. The Air Logistics Center at Warner-Robins AFB, Ga., performs one million man-hours of work per year on the C-17 fleet.

Boeing uses a “virtual fleet” concept on the 737 Airborne Early Warning & Control aircraft used by Australia, South Korea and Turkey, but executives are not sure if it will be applicable to the P-8A Poseidon antisubmarine-warfare aircraft, because of national configuration differences.

A completely different challenge is posed by the AV-8B Harrier. With the retirement of the U.K. Harrier force, Boeing has taken on a larger role in supporting the fleet, which now comprises 134 U.S. Marine Corps aircraft, 16 in Italy and 17 in Spain. The main problem today is coping with the fact that the Marines' out-of-service date for the Harrier has moved incrementally to the right, as Marine leaders have been forced to acknowledge delays in the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter program. The AV-8B is now to retire in 2030, with the “majority” of the fleet still flying in 2027.

The program has not been generously funded, and obsolescence and the supply base are an issue. Although Boeing was the prime contractor for the AV-8B, 75% of the supply base is in the U.K., and the company lost at least one-third of its business when the British force was retired. Moreover, there are still four configurations active in the fleet: radar-equipped AV-8B Plus, night-configured aircraft, older daytime-only jets and trainers.

One thrust of the Harrier support program is to update some aspects of the system. The 1980s-vintage APG-65 radar is unlikely to be effective in the 2020s against improved jamming systems. It was originally intended to support the AIM-120 missile, but that did not actually reach the fleet until 2011. The Marines would like to have a helmet-mounted cueing system as well as improvements to communications systems. The AV-8B today does not even have the Link 16 data-link system. At the same time, the Marines are in charge of the inventory of U.K. Harrier airframes that the Pentagon bought after their retirement, and Boeing has to help them use these to mitigate structural and out-of-production parts problems.