Maintenance Deferred = Disaster

Last week Bloomberg Businessweek published an article on how the lack of new helicopters and inadequate resources for maintenance of aging helicopters, in particular the Sikorski H-53E, were killing Navy helicopter pilots. The story saddened, but didn’t surprise me, since some 45 years ago, when I was a young Navy helicopter pilot, the Navy faced the same problems, except, if the Bloomberg report is correct, the problems may well be worse now than they were back then.

The H-53E entered service in 1981, and production ended by 1990, meaning that the oldest H-53Es are older than many of the pilots flying them. Because of the usefulness of helicopters depends in large part on their operation under conditions that create the most stress and strain on the airframe, including high levels of vibration, helicopters require continuing and extensive maintenance, but maintenance was slighted in all too many instances because of funding shortages created by Congressional budget caps and sequestrations. Then after several disasters in 2014, the Navy and Marines scraped up more maintenance funds in an effort to keep the H-53Es flying safely. But even with good maintenance, helicopters wear out quickly. The Navy was well aware of this and had planned to replace the H-53E initially by 2005, but had difficulty getting funding for the H-53K, so that the first H-53Ks will not be delivered until 2018, at the earliest.

Today, according to Bloomberg, Navy statistics show that there have been at least 19 non-combat disasters with the H-53E involving loss of life or damages in the multi-million dollar range, and the H-53E’s rate of major failures is three times the naval aviation average. And it’s likely that all the H-53Es cannot be replaced until 2029, at which time the “newest” H-53Es will be almost 40 years old.

This is just another example of something I see everywhere. Everyone wants the new aircraft, the new highway, the new bridge, the new building, the new stadium…and almost no one thinks of or budgets for the maintenance of these “new things” once they appear. In the case of the military aircraft, the failure of maintenance often results in spectacular crashes and pilots and crews dying… and in weeks those are forgotten, especially by the time the appropriations bills come up. But the Congress and the military aren’t the only example. Here in town, some fifteen years ago, the town built a badly needed civic theatre with function rooms that could handle very small conventions as well. The town has grown by almost 30% in that time, and theatre is booked close to year around… and, guess what, the theatre needs maintenance and replacement equipment – and the city council has never budgeted for it.

The United States has a highway and bridge infrastructure funding gap; the national parks system needs billions of dollars of repairs; and the list of maintenance and replacement projects in all areas is getting endless… and at all levels politicians can only insist on lower taxes, regardless of the costs in lives and national productivity, and each year the amount of deferred maintenance increases.

Of course, when someone is killed, then a multi-million dollar lawsuit is filed, but that money doesn’t bring back the dead or keep the next death from occurring. So, by all means, vote for lower taxes and convince yourself that you’re being fiscally responsible… and, by the way, supportive of the military pilots who fly the the H-53E and the crews and troops they carry.

14 thoughts on “Maintenance Deferred = Disaster”

  1. cremes says:

    “So, by all means, vote for lower taxes and convince yourself that you’re being fiscally responsible… and, by the way, supportive of the military pilots who fly the the H-53E and the crews and troops they carry.”

    Sounds like anyone who wants lower taxes is now complicit in murder of our armed services personnel, according to you. Is there any depth you will not plumb?

    Let’s take a look at the numbers. Here is a link to some historical budget data. Column C (third column) is the number of dollars spent by the federal government.

    Historical budget outlays from 1789-present

    For 2016, it will be just shy of $4 trillion. BTW, that is double what we spent in 2002 when we spent “only” $2 trillion.

    But that doesn’t tell the whole story. We should really look at how much each department received. The next link shows this detail.

    Historical outlays BY DEPT from 1789-present

    We can see the Dept of Defense has been fewer dollars since 2011. According to the DoD Comptroller report that is due to the force drawdown from the Middle East now that our wars over there are mostly over (cough). However, that 2016 number is still far higher than the 2002 number so the military isn’t exactly getting choked off here.

    So where has all of the money gone? We’ve doubled our dollars spent in the last 14 years. If you look at the second link (by dept details) I recommend looking at lines 11 (Dept of Health & Human Services), line 20 (Veterans Affairs), line 29 (Office of Personnel Mgmt), line 31 (Social Security on-budget), and line 32 (Social Security off-budget).

    Let’s apply some Modesitt logic.

    If you get welfare from the Dept of Health & Human Services, you are killing our military personnel. You have taken their dollars that they need for maintenance.

    If you work for the government (line 29) where the dept budget has doubled since 2002 then your salary has taken dollars away from helicopter maintenance. Murderer!

    If you are old and have paid in SS taxes your whole life, too bad. Every cent you receive is helping kill our military due to underfunded maintenance. Hope you are happy, old people.

    Of course, that “logic” is nothing of the sort and it’s bullshit. But I don’t read this blog for its strict adherence to logic.

  2. cremes says:

    BTW, lest you think I dislike you, I need to point out that I am a big fan of your science fiction. I don’t read much fantasy but I’m sure it’s very good too.

    I find your explorations of moral and ethical issues in your fiction to be quite good. Your blog posts don’t get to the same depth, obviously.

    If I sound hostile in my comments, that’s just the Internet. With missing body language every comment sounds hostile. 🙂

    1. I usually don’t mind, but I’m raising questions like this in a slightly confrontational manner because most people don’t think about “maintenance” as high priority. The problem with having “stuff” is that you have to maintain it. I’d be very happy, as I noted before, if Congress would let DOD close the nearly 300 bases and installations it wants to close and apply those wasted maintenance funds to problem areas. But, you’re off-base on Social Security. Those funds are “entitled” and couldn’t go for defense anyway. The point that gets overlooked is that we have — like it or not — more government than we as a nation want to pay for. And whether it’s for health care or defense, or anything in between, we either have to decide to do less, buy less, or pay more taxes. As for waste, even the most optimistic budget cutters can only come up with between a “mere” $100-$200 billion in savings, and with an annual deficit of over $500 billion, and projected to climb, such “savings” won’t do it. And, yes, I do have an objection to people dying because there’s not enough funding to maintain the equipment they need to carry out the missions that our politicians insist they undertake.

      1. cremes says:

        Of course I am “off-base on Social Security.” The whole reply was pointing out your post’s lack of logic. If you can blame taxpayers for unbudgeted maintenance then I can blame old people on SS for it too.

        We need less government. Unfortunately, as you *rightly* point out, our society on the whole wants *more* government but doesn’t like the bill that comes with it.

        No matter. Arithmetic will win in the end…

  3. JakeB says:

    Surely you’re not arguing it’s possible to simultaneously be a good American who supports the military and to be a believer in the value of paying taxes!!!

  4. Frank says:

    This is another example of how our current extremism (and the absolutism that seems to come with it) have so polarized us that we have lost sight of what we agree about.

    Conservative opinion used to include investing in maintenance as a virtue. But somehow, since it isn’t very “sexy” like new projects that we can have a ribbon cutting and speeches for, we don’t invest anymore. I remember when the Conservative position was to take care of what we’ve got, not just get new stuff all the time.

    We need to be more civil; we need to learn to compromise, again; we need to stop thinking that we can “flim flam” an easy answer to all our problems. We need to stop electing people who have the most saleable record and start electing people that are real flawed human beings…that we feel we can trust.

    Sorry, end of rant.

  5. R. Hamilton says:

    Clearly, anything sexy either as a new project or in terms of all the opportunities for kickbacks, needs 10x the justification of maintenance (which itself can be better used with less bacon, as you point out).

    Still, if we have more government than we want to pay for, rather than paying for more, how about having less for a change?

  6. John Prigent says:

    So you have the same kind of politicians over there as we do here in Britain? What a surprise! Politicians in all countries are cut from the same cloth: they’ll spend taxpayers’ money on their own vanity projects first, then an anything that they think will get them votes, and only lastly on things that ac actually needed. That’s why my town of 20,000 has a ‘civic theatre’ that only a small pressure group wanted but ‘leaders’ liked. It’s cost us about £2million so far and has no hope of ever earning enough to cover its costs – a pure vanity project that sucks up our tax money.

  7. darcherd says:

    The problem with cutting government spending is similar to the problem with globalization: The benefits are diffuse, but the negative impacts are concentrated, which means it is a lot easier to politically mobilize people who are against than those in favor. And because of the increased polarization of politics (on both sides of the Atlantic), while it’s possible to gain a wide consensus that government spending needs to be cut, everyone wants to cut “the other guy’s” priorities.

    1. R. Hamilton says:

      One could propose tax increases only in proportion to spending cuts…but nobody would like that. And most tax increases actually reduce jobs (and revenue). Consider a luxury tax on yachts (that only rich people can afford) – that will likely cause some modest jobs loss (tens or low hundreds) at the manufacturers.

      1. As you point out, it depends on the tax. Luxury sales taxes, such as on high-priced cars and yachts, have been proven to reduce sales tax revenues and actually cost jobs. Modest federal income tax increases, say, around 5%, will increase revenues with minimal adverse economic effects. Massive tax increases, 15% and above, especially if imposed all at once, will increase revenue for the first year, and then show declines in subsequent years. Increased corporate taxes will only result in price increases in goods and more off-shoring. We’d actually raise more tax revenue by cutting the corporate tax rate from the statutory 35% rate [which few pay anyway] to 10% AND eliminating all exemptions, but that’s a politically unpalatable proposition for too many politicians.

        1. darcherd says:

          The problem with removing the exemptions and loopholes is that taxation serves two purposes for a government: Revenue generation, and regulatory enhancement. There are some things which are very difficult to legislate and enforce, e.g. discriminatory or immoral behavior, but which can be discouraged (or encouraged, depending on the type of behavior desired) via extra taxes or tax breaks. Plus it’s usually a lot easier, politically, to reward desired behavior with a tax break than to prohibit undesired behavior with legislation.

          Of course, even while acknowledging that there are “good” reasons to increase the complexity of the tax code, no one today is arguing that the tax code needs more complexity. These political trade-offs just continue to be made because they’re easier than biting the bullet and taking on each of the special interest who benefit from one or another of the tax loopholes.

  8. Wine Guy says:

    Another topic near and dear to my heart: deferred maintenance.

    ED docs see this all to often, but with people’s own health. “I never got around to seeing the surgeon.” Well, the blood in your stool never went away and now instead of having a perfectly curable polyp you have stage 3 colon cancer.”

    Or “I always meant to stop smoking…” Well, now you’ve had your first stroke. Perhaps it’s time to stop now….. 3 years later: hemiplegic from their 2nd stroke and still smoking.

    In medicine, though, we don’t call it ‘deferred maintenance,’ we call it lack of primary care medicine.

    Insurance doesn’t like paying for it, either in the private sector OR in the public sector. Which is just sad.

    Side note:

    While I was a Medical Officer at Sigonella, 2 CH-53s went down. One had ‘minor injuries’ (ie.: no one died) and had to be down-flagged and salvaged for scrap. The other had all 4 aboard die and you could see the smoke-column for 15 miles.

  9. Lydia says:

    This problem exists at so many levels. My company used to start fairly long term software projects to resolve business problems without wishing to dedicate funding to maintenance of this software once it had been placed in production. Software projects may be treated as capital expenditure and create assets for the balance sheets. Software maintenance is operational expenditure which cannot be treated like creating an asset. In the end this means that the capital expenditure rapidly became useless, because to make software operational you need post go live adjustments for which there never was any funding because of the operational cost aspect, never mind the costs for fixing bugs and necessary changes later in the software development lifecycle. Delivered software projects therefore inevitably did not serve business needs very well if at all. This in turn led to business leaders not understanding why they were spending large amounts on ‘useless’ IT …. All because of accounting treatment and the unwillingness to dedicate unsexy maintenance dollars. Far worse of course when human lives are involved, my example is just about how pervasive this issue is.

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