Every year, the United States government spends tens of billions of dollars on aircraft sustainment. This figure may seem staggeringly high, but that’s what it costs to keep these essential (and often aging) aircraft safe in the skies. What’s even more astonishing is that, despite these figures, many aircraft are not mission-ready at any given time. 

In this article, we’ll discuss the challenges associated with military aircraft sustainment. From maintenance hurdles to technological advancements, we’ll explore the web of issues faced by the U.S. military in sustaining its aerial fleet, offering insights into the innovative solutions propelling this vital sector forward. Specifically, we’ll look at: 

  1. The goals of aircraft sustainment
  2. The aircraft sustainment challenges faced by the military 
  3. How to overcome these challenges
  4. Aircraft sustainment services at Greenwood Aerospace

Greenwood Aerospace is a leader in aircraft sustainment services. We specialize in the procurement of original and aftermarket spare parts for a wide variety of fixed-wing aircraft. Whether you’re looking to improve the sustainment of your current fleet or prepare for new aircraft, our ground support, kitting and logistics services, and supply chain management can save you substantial money and time. 

Contact us to learn more, or start a quote here. In the meantime, join us as we discuss the challenges and solutions associated with aircraft sustainment. 

What Are the Goals of Aircraft Sustainment

For the U.S. military, the goals of aircraft sustainment are aimed at ensuring the continuous operational effectiveness, safety, and longevity of military aircraft. Let’s explore the main goals of aircraft sustainment, including: 

  1. Operational readiness and availability
  2. Cost efficiency and budget management
  3. Safety and reliability enhancement
  4. Adaptation to technological advances
  5. Environmental sustainability
  6. Extended fleet lifespans

Here’s a closer look at these objectives, and their role in supporting the reliability and readiness of the military’s aerial fleet. 

Operational Readiness and Availability

At the core of aircraft sustainment lies the imperative to maintain a high level of operational readiness and availability. This goal involves minimizing downtime by efficiently conducting maintenance, repairs, and overhauls while maximizing the number of mission-ready aircraft at any given time. Achieving this objective requires a well-orchestrated balance between scheduled maintenance, predictive maintenance technologies, and swift response to unforeseen issues. 

Cost Efficiency and Budget Management

Striking a balance between maintaining aircraft at peak performance and managing costs remains a perpetual challenge. Aircraft sustainment aims to optimize cost-efficiency by employing innovative maintenance strategies, predictive analytics, and lifecycle management techniques. By minimizing expenses without compromising safety or performance, the goal is to effectively allocate resources within budget constraints.

Safety and Reliability Enhancement 

Ensuring the safety and reliability of military aircraft is paramount. Sustainment efforts focus on implementing rigorous safety protocols, incorporating technological advancements, and adhering to strict maintenance standards. The goal is to continuously enhance the reliability of aircraft systems, components, and structures, mitigating risks and upholding the highest safety standards for both personnel and missions.

Adaptation to Technological Advances

Rapid technological advancements continually reshape the landscape of aircraft capabilities and maintenance practices. Aircraft sustainment endeavors to adapt to these changes by embracing cutting-edge technologies, such as: 

  • Predictive maintenance
  • AI-driven analytics
  • Additive manufacturing, and 
  • Advanced materials

The goal is to leverage these innovations to enhance performance, streamline maintenance processes, and extend the lifespan of military aircraft.

Environmental Sustainability 

With a growing emphasis on environmental responsibility, aircraft sustainment aims to reduce the environmental footprint of military aviation. Sustainability efforts include optimizing fuel efficiency, exploring alternative propulsion systems, and adopting eco-friendly materials and manufacturing processes. Balancing operational needs with environmental considerations remains an ongoing goal of aircraft sustainment.

Extend Fleet Lifespans

A key objective within aircraft sustainment is to maximize the operational lifespan of military aircraft. With significant investments involved in aircraft acquisition and development, extending the lifespan of these assets becomes imperative. 

Sustainment efforts focus on employing advanced materials, structural enhancements, and comprehensive maintenance strategies aimed at preserving the integrity and performance of aircraft over extended periods. By extending fleet lifespans, the military can optimize the return on investment while ensuring continued operational capability and readiness without compromising safety.

What Aircraft Sustainment Challenges Does the Military Face?

While the aims of aircraft sustainment are clear, sustainment for the U.S. military is a formidable task fraught with numerous, broad challenges, including: 

  1. Aging fleets
  2. Overuse
  3. Technological complexities
  4. Supply chain issues
  5. Regulatory compliance
  6. Labor shortages
  7. Training requirements
  8. Increasing costs 

Understanding and effectively addressing these challenges is essential to maintaining the readiness and effectiveness of the military's aerial assets. Let’s take a closer look.

Aging Fleets

The military grapples with the implications of operating aging aircraft, some of which exceed their initially projected service lives. Continuous use and the lack of newer replacements have resulted in increased maintenance needs and the potential for obsolescence. For instance, the U.S. Air Force's B-52 Stratofortress, introduced in the 1950s, highlights the challenge of maintaining functionality and relevance in an era of evolving threats. 

The F-35s, too, are causing major sustainment headaches. The Department of Defense plans to spend an estimated $1.7 trillion on F-35 aircraft sustainment in the coming decades. Most of these funds are associated with ongoing operations, maintenance, and repairs, which become more expensive and frequent as the F-35 fleet ages. 

A U.S. Air Force F-35 jet sitting on a runway


The demand for air support in various global operations has led to the overuse of certain aircraft beyond their intended capacities. This accelerated usage contributes to premature wear and tear, necessitating more frequent maintenance, and can potentially compromise the safety and effectiveness of the fleet. 

Technological Complexities

The integration of sophisticated technology within modern aircraft introduces complexities in maintenance and repair procedures. Advanced avionics, computer systems, and stealth technology, as seen in the F-35 Lightning II, demand specific expertise and resources, often posing challenges in troubleshooting and maintenance. Sustainment for these aircraft requires specialized maintenance equipment, replacement parts, and highly trained personnel. 

Supply Chain Issues 

Dependence on a complex global supply chain for critical aircraft components raises concerns regarding reliability, timeliness, and potential vulnerabilities. Disruptions, such as shortages or delays in the delivery of spare parts, can significantly impact aircraft availability and readiness.

In the case of the F-35, spare part shortages throughout the F-35 supply chain resulted in these aircraft being able to perform far fewer missions or fly as often as required. In recent years, the COVID-19 pandemic caused widespread supply chain issues within the U.S. military, with significant delays in sourcing replacement parts and equipment, and fewer personnel available for sustainment activities. 

Regulatory Compliance

Adherence to stringent regulatory standards and evolving aviation regulations adds another layer of complexity to sustainment efforts. Meeting safety and airworthiness requirements while maintaining operational tempo poses challenges in balancing safety protocols with operational needs.

The stringency of these requirements is one aspect, but the constantly changing nature of aircraft regulations poses another challenge. With guidelines regularly being updated, ongoing training is essential for personnel working in the aircraft sustainment space. 

Labor Shortages

A shortage of skilled personnel, including mechanics, engineers, and technicians, presents a substantial challenge in executing maintenance and sustainment tasks effectively. This shortage is exacerbated by the high level of expertise required for modern aircraft systems. Attracting, training, and retaining personnel at this level has been a long-term struggle for the aviation industry.

Training Requirements 

Keeping personnel abreast of rapidly evolving technology and maintenance practices necessitates ongoing and comprehensive training programs. Ensuring that maintenance crews are proficient in handling the intricacies of advanced aircraft systems adds to the complexity of sustainment efforts, and ties into the labor shortages and lack of skilled, trained maintenance personnel. 

Increasing Costs

The cost of sustaining aging fleets, procuring specialized parts, investing in technological upgrades, and meeting stringent compliance standards contributes significantly to escalating sustainment costs. These expenses strain budgets and necessitate careful allocation of resources to maintain fleet readiness.

Each of these challenges represents a complex and interwoven issue that demands strategic planning, innovation, and a concerted effort to ensure the sustained operational effectiveness of military aircraft. But what are the implications of these challenges? What effect do they have on the military’s overall operational readiness? Let’s take a look. 

What Are the Implications of These Challenges?

The challenges outlined above can have a significant impact on military operations. This impact was accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which had dramatic effects on the military’s operational readiness and other elements of military aviation. Let’s explore some of the main implications that aircraft sustainment challenges can bring, including: 

  • Operational readiness impact
  • Mission limitations and capabilities
  • Safety concerns
  • Workforce challenges and burnout 
  • Innovation delays 

These significant implications highlight the importance of effective, efficient aircraft sustainment within the U.S. military. 

Operational Readiness Impact

The challenges in maintaining aging fleets and addressing overuse can significantly impact the operational readiness of the military. Increased maintenance requirements and potential downtimes due to military aircraft parts shortages or complex repairs can limit the availability of aircraft for critical missions. 

In 2022, the Government Accountability Office released a report on the mission readiness of 49 different military aircraft from 2011 to 2021. Staggeringly, they found that only four types of aircraft met their mission readiness goals throughout that period, and that mission readiness declined over its ten-year timeframe. 

26 aircraft didn’t meet their readiness goals for any of the 10 years examined, while many aircraft only met their readiness goals for 1-3 of the 10 years. Many of the reasons listed for these shortcomings were those outlined above, including supply chain delays in sourcing replacement parts, aging aircraft fleets, and a shortage of trained maintenance personnel. 

This lack of mission readiness could pose problems in situations where urgent responses are required. It also raises questions about the effectiveness of the current government spending on aircraft sustainment, which tallies billions of dollars annually. 

Mission Limitations and Capabilities

Challenges related to technological complexities may limit the full utilization of aircraft capabilities. For instance, if there are issues with the advanced sensors or stealth technology on aircraft like the F-22 Raptor, it could hamper their ability to perform at their designed operational capacities, impacting mission success.

Safety Concerns

Aging fleets and overuse can raise safety concerns due to increased wear and tear. Without proper maintenance or timely component replacement, the risk of accidents or in-flight failures may rise. Instances such as the potential for engine failures in older aircraft like the C-12 Huron underscore the importance of comprehensive maintenance to ensure safety.

A Beechcraft C-12F Huron on a runway

Workforce Challenges and Burnout

The shortage of skilled personnel and the complexities of maintaining modern aircraft can lead to burnout among existing maintenance crews and difficulty in retaining specialized expertise. This challenge may further exacerbate maintenance backlogs and impact the quality and timeliness of repairs. It may also lead to fewer applicants for new maintenance positions, compounding the problem. 

Innovation Delays

Challenges in addressing technological complexities or budget constraints may impede the integration of cutting-edge advancements into existing aircraft systems. This delay could hinder the military's ability to leverage the latest technologies to maintain an edge in modern warfare scenarios.

How to Overcome Aircraft Sustainment Challenges

Unfortunately, there’s no simple solution to overcoming the multifaceted challenges in aircraft sustainment. As the U.S. military navigates the complexities of maintaining aging fleets, addressing technological advancements, and mitigating supply chain disruptions, novel solutions are essential. Let’s explore some of the strategies to overcome aircraft sustainment challenges, including: 

  • Embracing technology
  • Incorporating AI
  • Seeking assistance from commercial aviation

By combining these strategies, the U.S. military can establish a dynamic and adaptive framework for aircraft sustainment. 

Embrace Technology

Embracing advanced technologies is pivotal in enhancing the efficiency and effectiveness of aircraft sustainment. Utilizing state-of-the-art diagnostic tools, condition-based monitoring systems, and predictive maintenance technologies allows for a more proactive approach to identifying and addressing issues before they escalate. 

For example, implementing advanced health monitoring systems, such as those used in the F-35 Lightning II, enables real-time data analysis to predict component failures, which optimizes maintenance schedules and reduces downtime.

Incorporate AI

The integration of artificial intelligence (AI) plays a key role in revolutionizing aircraft sustainment. AI-powered predictive analytics can analyze vast amounts of data to identify potential maintenance needs, optimize supply chain management, and predict equipment failures. 

AI can enhance decision-making processes by providing actionable insights, as demonstrated in the maintenance planning for the E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS). AI-driven algorithms can predict part failures, streamline logistics, and improve overall maintenance efficiency. 

The costs and downtime associated with planned maintenance activities are inevitably lower than those that come with unplanned maintenance. By using advanced technologies and AI capabilities to better plan and schedule maintenance activities, aircraft sustainment becomes more streamlined, and mission readiness improves. 

Seek Assistance From Commercial Aviation

In contrast to military aviation, where low operational readiness is tolerated and even expected, commercial aviation operations consider anything less than a 98% ready-to-fly performance to be subpar. Of course, the military faces more significant challenges than the commercial aviation sector, but there could still be lessons to learn. 

Collaboration with the commercial aviation sector can offer valuable insights and resources for overcoming sustainment challenges. Leveraging the expertise of commercial airlines, which often face similar challenges in maintaining aging fleets and addressing supply chain disruptions, allows for shared knowledge and innovative solutions. 

Joint ventures can facilitate the exchange of best practices and technologies. For instance, adopting commercial practices in maintenance and inventory management could help optimize military aircraft sustainment processes.

Aircraft Sustainment at Greenwood Aerospace

At Greenwood Aerospace, we provide aircraft sustainment to keep your fleet in the sky. With reliable supply chains, expert procurement of original and after-market parts, and unmatched industry experience, you can rely on Greenwood Aerospace to ensure your fleet’s mission readiness, safety, and longevity. 

Reliable Supply Chains

Recognizing the critical importance of timely access to quality aircraft parts and components, we have curated a large network of reliable suppliers. Our focus on supply chain reliability ensures that necessary parts are consistently available, minimizing downtime and contributing to the swift and efficient maintenance of your aircraft.

Our team also conducts supply chain assessment and market analysis to deliver time-sensitive and innovative solutions for your business. With our proprietary software, we can forecast future demands to help you stay ahead of the curve and ensure your needs are consistently met on a timely basis. 

Expert Parts Procurement

We employ a meticulous approach to sourcing high-quality aircraft parts, ensuring we only offer the best proprietary and after-market aviation parts. We have an extensive on-site stock of aircraft parts and accessories and can use our network of suppliers to rapidly source any parts we don’t immediately have available. 

Unmatched Experience

With over four decades of experience, we bring unparalleled expertise to the field of aircraft sustainment. Our team has worked with diverse aircraft models, addressed unique challenges, and implemented innovative solutions over the years. We are AS9120B certified, ITAR-registered, and eligible for HUBZone contracts. 

Aircraft We Service

We provide aircraft sustainment services for: 

You can find a complete list of our aircraft sustainment services and the aircraft included here

Trust Your Aircraft Sustainment to Greenwood Aerospace

Timely aircraft sustainment can save you money, keep your aircraft safe, and improve your mission readiness. With expert parts procurement, supply chain management, and sustainment services from Greenwood Aerospace, you can minimize downtime and keep your aircraft safely in the sky. 

Contact us today to get started, or request a quote to discover what Greenwood Aerospace can do for you. 

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