There is a growing difference between how military maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) is regarded in the Americas and how it is regarded in the Old World. For starters, many European and Middle East militaries and industries may not even regularly use the abbreviation “MRO,” especially as operational and organizational changes continue to alter the landscape there.

MRO has been developed and expanded as a concept to such a great extent over the past decade alone that it is becoming less and less recognizable in this part of the West. With fewer references to “maintenance” and “MRO” comes increasing talk of “support,” “availability” and “capability”—and the changing language underlies radically different aviation support concepts.

Under pressure of ever-tightening budgets, European defense ministries have looked at and adopted a widening range of concepts and technologies to improve the availability of military aircraft and their associated systems. Support costs for aviation amount to €5-7-billion ($6.5-9 billion) annually, and every penny saved through efficient management can potentially be used to improve effectiveness.

These pressures have been present for well over a decade, but recent economic crises, in addition to the drawdown of forces from Afghanistan, are forcing governments to look for ways to lower support costs further. Past moves have been toward greater use of industrial structures to support aircraft, and the future seems to hold more of the same.

Along those lines, after some tentative steps to maintain now-retired Jaguar aircraft, the U.K. Defense Ministry signed the Availability Transformation - Tornado Aircraft Contract (Attac) with BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce in late 2006. In effect, the two companies became responsible for all the Tornados' systems and subsystems and took on supply chain management and spares stocking as well. The contract has evolved to include aircraft capability upgrades, which have been necessary as operational requirements for Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya demanded rapid technology insertions.

The pathfinder nature of Attac subsequently has been expanded onto other platforms. The Typhoon Availability Service, started in 2009, mirrors Attac in being a global support contract, with the companies guaranteeing availability rates negotiated with the Defense Ministry every day. And in the rotary sphere, the Integrated Operational Support contracts for the AgustaWestland Merlin and Lynx Wildcat helicopters, as well as the Boeing Apache and Chinook helicopters, have also combined the joint requirements for better availability at lower prices through contractor incentives.

A sign of the effectiveness of this approach is that BAE says there have been billions of dollars of audited cash savings for the Tornado GR4/Typhoon since the support programs began.

These contracts have several factors in common. First, they have led to a stripped-down support chain, which has so far been responsive and flexible. When the U.K. customer needs to surge aircraft for operations, Boeing, AgustaWestland and BAE have responded with little or no disruption. And as support systems develop, maintenance regimes can be improved. In turn, better data collection for platforms such as the Chinook and Tornado GR4 have allowed time between maintenance periods to be extended, thus improving aircraft availability.

Observing the U.K.'s success with this model of military aviation support, France has followed suit with programs such as the care project for the dual-service Rafale multirole aircraft. Signed in 2009, the 10-year project transfers most risks and management areas to industry, with the French air force and navy paying only for hours of use and availability, not for spares and repairs. Although the pace of reform for other platforms has not been as rapid or incisive, increased cost pressures are forcing the French defense ministry toward more outsourcing, a path made easier by the performance of Dassault, Snecma and Thales in Rafale support.

The other Typhoon partners—Germany, Italy and Spain— are also enlarging industry's role. The EADS Germany center at Manching has systems support centers for both the Tornado and Typhoon, transferring systems responsibility and depot-level maintenance to EADS and away from the Luftwaffe. Finmeccanica's Alenia and Airbus Military also have taken on similar roles for the Italian and Spanish air forces, although local politics has acted as a drag on outsourcing. Most observers say that as the fiscal crises continue to bite, however, it will be difficult to retain old and expensive structures.