Lt. Gen. Robert D. McMurry, Jr. is the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center commander at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. The organization is the single center responsible for total life cycle management covering all aircraft, engines, munitions and electronic systems.
It is one of six centers reporting to Air Force Materiel Command. The men and women of AFLCMC work closely with their counterparts at the other five AFMC centers, each with a core mission focus: Air Force Research Laboratory (science & technology), Air Force Test Center (test & evaluation), Air Force Sustainment Center (maintenance, repair, overhaul and supply chain management), Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center (strategic systems) and the Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center (installation support).
AFLCMC provides holistic management of weapon systems across their life cycle and simplifies and consolidates staff functions and processes to curtail redundancy and enhance efficiency across the Air Force.
Approximately 26,000 AFLCMC Airmen, civilian and contractor employees perform the center’s mission from nine major locations and dozens of smaller sites.
McMurry is responsible for the functions of organizing, training and equipping the center to include life-cycle management processes.
During an interview with Airman Magazine, McMurry discussed the roles of the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, the concept of condition-based maintenance plus, or CBM+, agile development operations and the process additive manufacturing.
Airman Magazine: What is the mission of the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center and, as the commander, what are your priorities?
Lt. Gen. McMurry: The Air Force Life Cycle Management Center is an acquisition and product support center. We basically buy and do lifecycle support for all weapons system for the Air Force except space and nuclear systems.
The Air Force is a fighting force and as a fighting force you’re going to need weapons systems, aircraft systems, communications and battle management systems to name a few and you’re going to need somebody to purchase those systems.
The Life Cycle Management Center is a centralized organization to bring purchasing expertise, engineering expertise and development expertise towards buying those kind of capabilities and then supporting them in the field throughout the life of the system. Our mindset is that we’re going to procure systems that meet and exceed user requirements and perform for as long as the Air Force needs them to.
We provide the warfighter’s edge. That’s the phrase we use here.
Airman Magazine: What is the purpose of the Rapid Sustainment Office and what are some of the priorities it pursues?
Lt. Gen. McMurry: The Rapid Sustainment Office’s purpose is to bring new sustainment technology to bear, to improve readiness for the warfighter. I describe the mission as fielding solutions to improve Air Force readiness.
Inside the RSO there are three main areas we’re really focused on right now and the first is agile manufacturing. Currently, that consists of additive manufacturing and cold spray technology.
Secondly, we’re looking at lasers and robotics to improve heavy maintenance and scheduled maintenance that we do primarily in our depots. For example, using a robotic arm equipped with lasers to strip paint from aircraft or autonomous robots to paint aircraft, which would free up maintenance personnel for other duties.
Lastly, we’re looking at condition-based maintenance plus, which is maintenance performed based on evidence of need, using data analytics and sensor data to better manage maintenance to provide less downtime for our fleet.
Airman Magazine: What is cold spray technology and what is that technology’s impact on readiness. Can you provide some specific examples?
Lt. Gen. Rice: Think of a sandblaster but instead of blasting away material, it’s adding metal. It adds that metal a lot like how welding works, but it’s actually stronger than a weld. It’s basically just building more material into the lattice that’s there. So when you do that, you have material that’s as strong as the original and then you can go in and mill it back to what it needs to be.
Take a gearbox on an F-16 (Fighting Falcon); I use gearbox simply as a common term. The gears wear because they have a turning shaft inside. Well, with cold spray you can put the wear back; you can basically add metal back to that area where it was wearing out. Then you machine the gear back and you’ve got a brand new gearbox.
It costs $160,000 to replace the gearbox, but it costs $4,000 to fix it with cold spray; it’s a pretty promising technology for us.
There’s a challenge with cold spray. We have to make sure the fix is of sufficient quality and can pass an airworthiness check and we’ll have to validate that fix on every aircraft, but it’s worth the investment to get through the airworthiness certification to do that.
Airman Magazine: What would be the impact of increased utilization of additive manufacturing?
Lt. Gen. McMurry: I actually think additive manufacturing is going to change us more than we even have conceived right now. So first of all, let’s talk about what you can do with it.
We had backordered latrine covers, which is just basically a duct thing and they’re back ordered more than 360 days. If you need to fix one it’s $10,900 for the part. I don’t want to imply that the part cost is some kind of price gouging, but when we ask somebody to make something we want a quality item and these companies haven’t made one in a long time.
They have to re-qualify the manufacturing line and they have to test it. We’ve seen this on things as simple as bolts. The manufacturers don’t make it anymore so it’s a custom bolt. They can’t even give you one until they run and test 50,000 of them. These are the things that drive up those costs and it’s still a year to get it. With additive, you can print it in 43 hours and instead of $10,900 it’s $350.
With five parts, that’s $53,000 of savings pretty quick. All you need is a 3D model of the part.
There’s a seal handle on the C-5; we needed five of them and they were back-ordered 180 days at $2,600 a piece. We can make them with additive for $300 in 82 hours.
Ten to twenty years from now, we’re going to stop shipping parts. We’re going to start shipping printers, metals and polymer powder. With a machine on hand, you can build a significant chunk of the supply chain. As of right now we cannot make safety critical structural parts with additive: there’s just too much variability.
Airman Magazine: Can you break down the concept of condition-based maintenance and how it could affect the overall lethality of the Air Force?
Lt. Gen. McMurry: In a nutshell, conditioned-based maintenance is fixing something when it needs to be fixed. Don’t just schedule a repair or replacement.
Think of it like when you’re replacing the oil in your car. If you had the cars I grew up with, every 3,000 miles or every “X” amount of months, you replaced the oil. Nowadays, in modern cars there’s a sensor that says here’s how much oil life you’ve got left and when it gets to a point it notifies you it’s time for an oil change. That’s condition-based maintenance.
With CBM+ you add data analytics, so you may not have a sensor for everything, but you’ll have enough sensors to tell you the health and status of a system. From that data and from your historic supply data, your performance measures and through repeated analysis and long-term history with intelligent systems you can start to predict when something is going to fail.
The data will tell you you’re going to lose a tire or you’re going to lose a control valve, whatever it is. Whenever you know something is going happen you can predict it and you can schedule it.
If you can predict and schedule a fix, you spend less downtime. You will have the parts on hand, you’re kitted and you’re ready to schedule it in a time you can manage. It doesn’t mean the system never breaks, just means you do preventive maintenance in a more predictive fashion.
Airman Magazine: How long has CBM+ been in place and where did the concept came from?
Lt. Gen. McMurry: We’ve just gone live within the last couple of months and the lead aircraft for us are the B-1B Lancer and the C-5 Galaxy. With CBM+, what we’re really trying to do is learn from civilian airline experience, like at Delta airlines.
Delta went across this journey from 2013 to 2017 and they collected all their maintenance data. They call it a “data lake.” Then they got a bunch of analysts and coders to start looking through the data and see what they could learn. So they have 850 aircraft and in 2013, I believe, they had 169 cancel-free days. That meant during that time there were no unscheduled cancellations due to maintenance.
After implementing lessons learned from their data, they got to 324 cancel-free days in 2017 and at one point had 100 straight days without a cancellation. We’re actually trying to set up a partnership with Delta to learn how they go about evaluating their data so that we can bring those data analyzing skills into our fleets.
There are some challenges. First, you need good data. Then you need the right analyst and you need to be able to transform the data into an exposable analyzable form. We’ll also need some patience while we keep working at it.
Airman Magazine: Can you speak to some of the successes already with the B-1 and C-5?
Lt. Gen. McMurry: With both airframes we have had some examples of success already in analyzing their maintenance. With the C-5, there’s an air-exit door causing all kinds of problems.
Well, if you just see the problems you just replace the door. The data tells us there’s not just a problem with the door, there’s a problem with the temperature sensor that’s driving the problem and by replacing the temperature sensor we avoided having to pull off that door and replacing an expensive part. We also avoided the downtime for it and because we know it’s the sensor, we can then schedule it and avoid an unplanned grounding for a part failure.
With the B-1, the sensors could detect fuel migration. We were noticing the fuel in a couple aircraft transferring from one tank to another uncommanded. A fuel leak was effectively happening here.
Now there are two things you can do with that data and we did both. First we planned the repair, we know we’ve got to fix it and we’ll schedule that as planned work instead of surprise work. That’s a good thing.
Second, we pass this information back into the operations system to the aircrew, so if they see this fuel imbalance, they can plan and work against it to safely and proactively manage the aircraft’s center of gravity.
To keep that fleet operational we’re giving them the best data we can.
Airman Magazine: Will the implementation of CBM+ have a domino effect across the maintenance career field by easing the impact of maintainer shortages and help get us back to a higher mission-capable rate?
Lt. Gen. McMurry: I would call it like a snowball effect. I think that’s what you mean in that you’re going to get small gains, but then as you keep going, you get larger and larger gains.
It doesn’t solve every problem; we have old fleets and we’re going to find things wear out and break. The Air Force has parts problems, we have supply issues and we’ll have obsolescent parts. We’ll have to work our way through that, but what we’ll do is we’ll get better and better. CBM+ has the potential to create pretty significant changes as shown in the Delta airlines examples.
Airman Magazine: From your perspective, how can research efforts into big data, quantum computing and artificial intelligence, increase readiness?
Lt. Gen. McMurry: I think they’re going to increase a lot more than just readiness. So, I kind of lump two of those together and I’m not quite sure yet about the third. So, let’s start with big data. That’s really where CBM+ is coming from. It’s to get as much data as you can. If you have sensors, get the sensor data; if you don’t, find ways to use the sensors that you have to model performance within the system. That’s kind of classic control theory. So big data is going to allow us to use supply data, sensor data, maintenance data part and even model-based stuff to kind of give us an ability to do more predictive maintenance to avoid unscheduled downtime and to manage our supply chain better.
Artificial intelligence allows you to make use of what machines can do better. As a human you can only do so much. With artificial intelligence we can really grind through that data and start finding things we didn’t really recognize. We’ve got to build those algorithms and work our way through it. I think there’s tremendous opportunity there.
Quantum is deal breaker though. I don’t really understand quantum; it works on Einstein’s spooky action at a distance kind of thing, but everything I understand about quantum computing is it changes everything. It allows for systems to do things that we can’t fathom now. That’s a deep research activity I know the Air Force Research Laboratory is working on pretty hard. I think we’re decades away, but the A.I. and the big data are here now.
Airman Magazine: What is it like watching this kind of technology unfold during your career to where we are getting into the realms of A.I.? What does that mean to you?
Lt. Gen. McMurry: I think it’s pretty fascinating to me because what you’ve got now are situations you only saw on TV and said, “Wow that can’t be real.” Now it is; we’re really getting to a point where we have an ability to discover and understand things at a level that’s deeper than we were ever able to do. But, even as a lieutenant and a captain coming up, we were kind of looking at technology of today and going, we should be able to do this.
There’s this guy, Roy Amara who created Amara’s law, which basically stated you always overestimate the impact of technology in the near term, but we tend to underestimate it in the long term and in the computing stuff it’s kind of that way. In computing and communication we we’re all like, tomorrow it’ll be right here, but now here it is 35 years later from my entry on active duty and we’re looking at it going, whoa, it really is here and it’s everywhere. Now we are computer dependent and computer literate and it’s a great strength, but it has some vulnerability as well.
Airman Magazine: What are some examples of robotics being employed in the maintenance and sustainment areas? What are the benefits that automation and robotics provide?
Lt. Gen. McMurry: Let’s start with the benefit; the most obvious is it allows you to do in a very consistent and repetitive fashion something that’s very difficult for humans to do and it can then be much more resource efficient and not just in labor hours, but in consistency.
Take painting for instance, it’s the most obvious uses that we have right now. What we find is with painting and resurfacing the consistency that you get from robotics is fantastic. It also prevents surface damage and robotics allow you to get in difficult areas consistently. It also allows you to get to a much more advantageous position with respect to the cleanup activity.
If you look at the way we’ve been doing de-paint, we use bead blast, so you basically go in and sandblast only instead of sand, they’re using these plastic beads that are small and they knock off the paint and although it works well there’s somebody there who’s got to do this and while wearing protective suits for a long time.
Now you can have a semi-autonomous robotic system measure where the aircraft is and instead of using a bead blast it uses a laser and vaporizes the paint off. The cleanup is very cheap and a significant cost savings. We are running an experiment right now at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, and we’ve run 13 jets through so far and we think there’s some pretty significant savings to be had there.
Airman Magazine: So in in the near future the maintainers are going have the data to know exactly what part they need, when they are going to need it and you’re going to have the ability to make it in advance?
Lt. Gen. McMurry: Yeah. It’s an interesting thing when you talk to the Air Force’s chief engineer and you say this is really cool we can print this part. He says, it’s cool you can print it, but it’s even cooler when we get the 3D model. Once you have the model with model-based systems engineering, you can test that model build software wise.
Now we’re back to the software proliferation. We’re doing things where you can simulate the environment the 3D model is in and you can tell how it’s going to break. Then you can connect it into your big model and start seeing the failure affects and the criticality.
The more parts we have modeled to the right standard and right degree of fidelity, the more ability we’ll have to understand how the system performs under stress.
We’ll understand how they’re going to break, how we ought to supply the systems to keep them repaired and how to make sure their lifecycle is as effective, mission wise, as it can be.
Airman Magazine: Can you talk to the solving of our warfighter’s needs with the utilization of agile development operations with software and how it affects the old acquisition paradigm?
Lt. Gen. McMurry: So that’s considered DevOps (development operations) or agile DevOps. Basically, it’s the organic building and developing software alongside the user. We’re agile because the requirements could adjust and change and it’s a blending of the development with a tie in with the operations. The development activity is going to happen at a high pace with continuous delivery. So, when we do that with software. You get fantastic results and it builds user trust.
It is really hard to build trust and confidence in the old acquisitions paradigm, because if you come to me and say, “I want a new airplane or system,” I’m going to tell you you’re going to have to wait years to develop. But in software, if I we use an agile DevOps method, you only have to wait weeks.
When you develop in increments and alongside the user you are building repeated delivery confidence and a trust in the process with the user. That’s a big deal in the software world.
With the Kessel Run software, which is an Air Operations Center pathfinder, they have taken the lead in the DevOps process.
That’s why Dr. (Will) Roper, the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisitions and technology and logistics, created Program Executive Office Battle Management as PEO Digital. Building on the success of Kessel Run to standardize and spread the agile DevOps software acquisitions processes throughout the Air Force.
My view is you’ve got to take that approach wherever you can to everything else. And we’re not good at it. You know we (Air Force) talk a good game and then even on the simplest thing, you get this massive waterfall schedule that starts with 85 things and in a year and a half we’ll have it.
My question is when are we going to solve problem one? How do you solve an incremental part of the problem now, field it, get it done, then add on and buy the risk down as fast as possible and solve problems now.
That’s what additive allows you to do; that is what CBM+ allows you to do. It’s what this software approach, this agile software DevOps approach allows you to do, is to put things in place quickly to solve user problems and then solve the next one. Move on. Keep solving problems.
It changes everything about the way we do this business.
Airman Magazine: What is the function of the Cyber resiliency for Weapons Systems, or CROWS, office?
Lt. Gen. McMurry: This is one of the areas where the lifecycle center itself a plays a big role in looking at cross cutting things. Everything we’ve talked about has been kind of a cross cutter. We’ve talked about techniques for software development, we’ve talked about agile manufacturing, and we’ve talked about a condition-based maintenance, things that cut across all platforms.
So when we get to CROWS, what we’re looking at is how do we get to cyber resiliency? So we created a team of experts to kind of look at that. They were charged to look at 48 different weapons systems. They’re a little over halfway through assessing those for vulnerability. They’re taking a system engineering approach to looking at what’s the vulnerability and then they have seven different lines of effort that are focused on how do we get better.
McMurray’s simple rule on how to deal with it is every Airman is a cyber warrior; you’re going to have to be.
We all have to understand the concept of what does it take to provide good cyber defense. If we don’t all become good stewards of cyber defense, every one of us is a danger.
That’s why we don’t plug in USB devices into the network. That’s why you don’t plug non-system equipment into system equipment. It can create an open door to viruses, worms, and all kinds of problems.
The CROWS are looking at those vulnerabilities across systems that frankly were designed and built before we were even thinking about these kinds of problems. It’s a hard problem. We’re trying to figure out how to accelerate it and work our way through it, but I think they made pretty good progress.
Airman Magazine: Lastly is there anything you would like to pass on to the men and women of this Center?
Lt. Gen. McMurry: What makes a modern air force capable is a combination of human professional capabilities and war-fighting systems and the ability to connect all of those productively. Fundamental to developing that kind of operational capability is the ability to acquire and support weapon systems for their life. That’s what the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center does well.
The people we have, about 28,000 of them spread across 67 different locations, all take this mission very seriously and they all want to do it better every day.
We are connected to all three of the main lines of efforts in the National Defense Strategy. We’re about ready and lethal systems; that’s what we do. We’re working readiness and we’re working advanced capabilities. We are about partnerships. We didn’t talk about it, but a significant part of our portfolios, foreign military sales, is equipping our partners and allies with U.S. quality material that integrates with our systems. That is strengthening partnerships and building partnerships.
Lastly, the business process of acquisition is much maligned. We understand the concepts of bureaucracy. What we’re trying to do is make that process work well. We’re trying to take what was an industrial-age process focused on building big things, make one and spend years building more and bring it into an information age capability agile DevOps process.
My goal is that they understand and see the direct tie between what they do and how the war fighter gets the mission done.
I couldn’t be more proud of them.