The U.S. Air Force is rebalancing its repair programs to restore in-house management in hopes of reducing the cost to sustain its aircraft fleets and to take advantage of the benefits offered by industry.

The Air Force has in the past struggled to maintain its statutory limit of keeping at least 50% of its repair work; a decade ago, it was forced to waive compliance owing to an over-reliance on industry.

At that time, the service was pursuing total system performance responsibility contracts or contractor logistics support (CLS) arrangements in which industry was given wide authority for large fleets. As a result, however, the cost of developing and maintaining fleets grew substantially, and the unique skills required for this work eroded in the Air Force.

The service is now looking to more closely manage its own fleets by breaking up large contracts. The rebalancing strategy was started a few years ago, but is beginning to yield savings as the Air Force is squeezed for funding owing to budgets cuts mandated by the sequestration process.

By breaking up a sweeping C-17 maintenance contract once under Boeing's management, Air Force officials say they are expected to save $12.4 billion over the fleet's life without sacrificing performance. Boeing remains the prime integrator for the strategic transport, but the Air Force has stepped in for much of the “white collar,” or administrative management.

The Air Force also plans to compete sustainment of the Pratt & Whitney F117 propulsion systems in an attempt to cut cost, according to officials in the Mobility Directorate of the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center.

The C-17 was the first of the Air Force's major weapon systems to undergo what it called a sustainment business case analysis, which produced the strategy now in play.

The second was the Lockheed Martin F-22, the costly twin-engine, stealthy fighter. Air Force officials did not cite a cost figure associated with anticipated savings for F-22 sustainment changes. But, the Air Force is beginning this year to bypass Lockheed Martin to directly contract with Pratt for airframe-mounted nozzle sidewalls. And, plans are underway to begin contracting directly with Northrop Grumman to activate a radar repair capability at the Warner Robins Air Logistics Center, Ga., the service's central location for electronics systems. The radar work will be established there once funding is available, according to officials in the Fighter/Bomber Directorate at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio.

Perhaps the most challenging shift for the Air Force has been with support of the growing Predator and Reaper unmanned aircraft fleet made by General Atomics. Three years ago, the Air Force was told by company officials that if it wanted to buy technical data to support in-house work, “You can buy the company” (AW&ST May 17, 2010, p. 25). Despite challenging talks with the company, Predator overseers are pursuing a strategy that incorporates some in-house supply-chain and maintenance management. Service officials declined to provide specifics, but they say they are in the process of implementing the plan.

Finally, the Air Force is planning to stand up in-house support for the new Boeing KC-46 tanker in 2017 as the first 18 refuelers are fielded, a departure from a tradition of relying on CLS early in a fleet's life. The Air Force hopes to conduct the first “C Checks” at its Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center as early as 2018. However, it will maintain five, one-year options for interim contractor support in the event help is needed by Boeing. “The program office does not envision long-term CLS for this weapon system,” directorate officials say.