Well, you learn something everyday. While reading Tracks, the in-house newspaper of the Anniston Army Depot, I discovered the highly regarded Stryker combat vehicle that has figured so prominently in the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns is named after two Medal of Honor winners. I always figured that Stryker was just a cool name for a troop carrier that can safely traverse any kind of terrain, including ground that has been mined with improvised explosive devices. But it turns out the vehicle is named for Pfc. Stuart S. Stryker, who served heroically in World War Two, and Spc. Robert F. Stryker, who served with similar distinction in Vietnam. Unlike much of our culture, the Army remembers the past sacrifices of those who preserved our freedoms.
I learned something else from reading the Tracks story by Jennifer Bacchus. This year marks the tenth anniversary of a public-private partnership between the Anniston Army Depot and Stryker prime-contractor General Dynamics that has proven remarkably successful. Initially the depot did little more than paint the new vehicles, but once they began coming back from war zones in need of repairs, the partnership gradually transitioned to a 50-50 division of labor. Basically, the depot did the repairs and General Dynamics provided the parts. In 2009, the relationship shifted again to what the Army calls “reset,” a comprehensive effort to restore war-weary vehicles to a better-than-new state. In that effort, Army and GD employees have worked side by side to reset over a thousand Strykers.
People in Washington don’t hear much about such public-private partnerships, often because they work so well that there’s nothing for the media to report. So instead what people in Washington hear is the constant bickering between free-market purists who think military depots should go away and the self-appointed champions of public-sector workers who want to “in-source” everything in sight. That debate can’t be resolved, because there is so little common ground between the two ideological camps. But even as the political debate drones on, the Anniston depot and General Dynamics are demonstrating that practical people can find an optimum solution for sustaining combat systems as budgets tighten.
I have written in the past about the need to limit government involvement in industrial activities, particularly those bearing upon the nation’s capacity to innovate and export in commercial markets. However, the political reality is that the armed forces aren’t willing to rely entirely on market sources for the sustainment of systems like Stryker, and Congress will never agree to privatize military depots. With budgets shrinking for depots and contractors alike, the only alternative to nonstop political struggle is for the two sides to find a division of labor on sustainment that they can live with. Anniston Army Depot’s partnership with General Dynamics — it has similar arrangements with BAE Systems and Honeywell — seems like a model of efficiency that might be applied elsewhere. The Army should consider integrating the concept of public-private partnerships into its sustainment plans for all new systems, such as the Ground Combat System and Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, because it looks like the most practical solution to a thorny budgetary and political challenge.