Right-to-repair pops up intermittently in the news cycle, yet the issue’s been debated non-stop for decades in numerous industries and with lawmakers. The issue’s resurfaced in the past few months, and is again all over the industrial map. In November, Reuters wrote about automakers trying to prevent third-party outfits from fixing advanced driver assistance technology, a market expected to one day be worth $800 billion. In January, the Minneapolis Star Tribune wrote about how all-analog tractors built before 1980 “cause bidding wars at auctions” because farmers can fix them without the onerous costs and restrictions that tractor maker John Deere has become the face of. This month, Jalopnik‘s Foxtrot Alpha military blog delved into an NYT op-ed written by Marine Capt. Elle Ekman, who discussed how the military’s inability to fix its machinery — from generators to warships to jet fighters — is compromising operational readiness and effectiveness.
Ekman’s NYT piece surveyed the matter, but a letter she and Major Lucas Kunce wrote to the Federal Trade Commission on the subject got into specifics. Over a period of decades, Congress and regimes in charge of the Department of Defense promoted the actions that have now tied the military’s hands. The Department of Defense went from providing one-third of the entire Western world’s R&D budget in 1970 to funding 16% of U.S. R&D in 1999. The clout in 1970 that came with such largesse enabled the DoD to dictate terms, that power dynamic no longer possible thanks to the a decrease even from 1999 levels. During a 1993 dinner now known as “The Last Supper,” DoD Secretary William Perry encouraged defense contractors to consolidate because they wouldn’t all survive Pentagon budget cuts. The execs in attendance took his advice, turning 107 former competitors into five juggernauts by 2005 that wielded a great deal more power.
Throughout all of this, as commercial-focused technology embraced much greater tech and began to have military applications, “strategists in the national security world” called on the DoD to “become a better customer,” which turned into DoD assenting to terms that favored the seller instead of the buyer.
On top of all of this, there are sole source contracts, meaning the DoD deals with a single vendor in a non-competitive process. In the first nine months of 2016, more than 50% of DoD contracts were sole source, giving the contracting companies even more power. Companies used that power to write warranties that were too expensive or risky to try to circumvent.
The result: Warranty clauses that forbid military mechanics and technicians from fixing military equipment, those mechanics reprimanded by higher-ups when they try. Ekman wrote of engines sent from Okinawa, Japan, to the supplier in the U.S. even though Marines could have fixed them in place, “because ‘that’s what the contract says.” The shipping and return process can take months, cost a fortune, decrease unit effectiveness, and rob “Marines [of] the opportunity to practice the skills they might need one day on the battlefield, where contractor support is inordinately expensive, unreliable or nonexistent.” Ekman and Kunce went after the Medium Tactical Vehicle Replacement and Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (pictured), both supplied by Oshkosh Corporation. Regarding the JLTV, “Marines in the field could not maintain the vehicle without contractor support, support manuals and provided training were inadequate to the task of vehicle maintenance, and that the health monitoring system for the vehicle was itself inaccurate and ‘reduced crew and maintainer confidence in the system.’”
While Ekman spoke for the Marine Corps, comments on the Foxtrot Alpha piece from veterans in other branches appear to show the Marines aren’t alone. The overall military situation is perhaps best summed up by Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of the consumer-focused Repair Association, who said, “If we cannot fix our phones and bulldozers while waging war, we’ve really screwed ourselves.”