Whether an old airframe is on the edge of retirement or a brand-new jet, a robust logistics chain, and parts supply are paramount. 

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What is Aircraft Sustainment? 

We’ve written extensively about different types of aircraft in the Department of Defence’s inventory, about parts procurement, and even how foreign nationals can source parts and service contracts. But what about the aircraft themselves? How are they maintained? And not just in terms of the nuts and bolts of day-to-day maintenance and repairs for flight operations but long-term sustainability. This is particularly important for a fleet that is largely made up of aging legacy airframes, many of which are three, four, five, or even six decades old. Aircraft sustainment is the comprehensive strategy to ensure that the DoD’s fleet of aircraft are maintained, repaired, and kept in optimal condition to remain worldwide capable, anytime, anywhere. 

Sustainment Goals 

Aircraft sustainment aims to ensure that military aircraft are available and ready for use when needed and can perform their assigned missions safely and effectively. Military aircraft are built to remain in the fleet for many years, although most of the U.S.’s fleets of military jets have far exceeded expectations. So, the sort of baseline expectation of aircraft sustainment is to ensure the fleets meet their expected lifespans. But since most of our aircraft have already exceeded their expected lifespans, then the goal is to meet the expanded timelines for the fleet. The DoD is highly interested in wringing every possible flight hour out of their aircraft. 

Thankfully, technological advances are providing many more tools in the toolbox for the military to use in their sustainment practices. Here are just a few:

  • Incorporate advanced technologies such as IoT, AI, and Big Data analytics to enhance aircraft sustainment.

  • Implement a proactive maintenance approach to reduce unscheduled maintenance and downtime.

  • Create a centralized system to manage aircraft maintenance schedules and records for better tracking and accountability.

  • Establish partnerships with suppliers to ensure the timely availability of spare parts and components.

  • Formulate a training program for maintenance personnel to ensure they have the necessary skills and knowledge to perform effective aircraft maintenance.

  • Conduct regular inspections to identify and address issues before they become major problems.

  • Develop a comprehensive aircraft sustainment plan that includes both short-term and long-term objectives.

  • Implement a continuous improvement process to identify opportunities for improvement and implement corrective actions.

Regulations & Policies That Impact Sustainment 

There is not one single regulation or policy in the military that impacts sustainment; each branch has entire libraries of regulations dedicated to aircraft maintenance. This quote from the “Examination of the U.S. Air Force's Aircraft Sustainment Needs in the Future and Its Strategy to Meet Those Needs (2011)” sums it up nicely: “The complexity of the Air Force sustainment enterprise is reflected in the myriad of statutes, regulations, and policies that the Air Force must consider when performing sustainment tasks.” 

They go on to list a handful of the federal codes related to this sustainment:

  • the definition of depot maintenance (10 U.S.C. § 2460),
  • types of work for the maintenance depots and core considerations (10 U.S.C. § 2464)
  • amounts of work to be conducted in the depots, i.e., 50/50 accounting (10 U.S.C. § 2466)
  • the 6 percent rule (10 U.S.C. § 2476);
  • And many more

Aircraft sustainment is swimming in regulations. 


According to a Government Accountability Office study, over a ten-year period (FY11-FY21), only four aircraft types of 49 reviewed met their mission readiness goals.

And actually, the overall readiness and airworthiness are alarmingly bad for all of these. While this doesn’t comprise the entire fleet, it is a broad section of it, definitely wide enough for a representative sampling of the entire fleet. What is particularly alarming is that commercial airline fleets consider anything below 98 percent ready-to-fly rates as subpar. 

Rapid Response Process 

HR offices and teams often employ Rapid Response Processes to address manpower issues in the workplace. It is a similar concept in aircraft sustainability. As a given aircraft’s mission capability rate begins to drop, the best course of action is to address the situation immediately. The rapid response process in aircraft sustainment involves a systematic approach to problem-solving that ensures timely and effective solutions. The process begins with identifying the problem, which can be done through various means such as regular inspections, monitoring, or reports from pilots or maintenance personnel.

Once the problem is identified, a “Tiger Team” team of experts is assembled to investigate and diagnose the issue. This team may include engineers, technicians, and other specialists with the necessary skills and knowledge to identify the root cause of the problem.

System Integrity 

System integrity ensures that all systems on an aircraft or weapon system work and function as designed. Modern aircraft are incredibly complicated, producing enormous amounts of electrical power to operate their systems. Every aircraft is built with miles of electrical wire, cables, hydraulic lines, etc. Maintaining these systems is a real chore but is the backbone of maintaining system integrity.

System integrity always starts on the flightline or in the phase docks. It starts with identifying weaknesses and determining a solution. But it isn’t just the aircraft that has weak points. The logistics chain is a pivotal part of the process. Waiting on parts not only keeps that one aircraft out of the air but also strains the remainder of the fleet. The unit must either scrub the mission altogether or pull assets from another mission. 

Challenges of Aircraft Sustainment 

There are many challenges to aircraft sustainment as we see it today. The first is operations tempo. Aircraft are meant to be flown, but it takes a toll when they are flying combat operations non-stop for two decades. Not all aircraft were subjected to this, but many were. The next is just age. Our jets are old. The youngest B-52 is a 1964 model, the same with the KC-135 series. The F-15 was first flown as a prototype in 1972 and entered service in 1976. It has been in continuous service for 47 years, which is unheard of for a fighter. Parts supplies dry up over time, and it is even harder when the fleet is averaging just shy of 30 years in age. 

Technology for Sustainment 

Modern and emerging tech offers a lot of key resources to optimize fleet health for aging aircraft. Another critical activity is incorporating advanced technologies such as IoT, AI, and Big Data analytics to enhance aircraft sustainment. These technologies can provide valuable insights into aircraft performance and maintenance needs, allowing maintenance teams to make data-driven decisions about maintenance and repair requirements.


Some programs are available for data analytics to provide predictive maintenance solutions for aircraft. Planners and analysts can drill down and determine where weaknesses exist by studying the historical trends and analysis for a given airframe. In fact, they can even pinpoint systems, sub-systems, and components that are prone to failure. Of course, these are not fool-proof. There is no way to predict parts or component failure with complete accuracy. The best software can do is track trends and provide a ballpark wag. At the end of the day, it falls on the shoulders of the line maintenance to monitor issues with aircraft. They really are the first line of defense in aircraft sustainment. 


Aircraft sustainment is really just a fancy way of saying “take care of your fleet.” It always starts at the ground level, with eyeballs on aircraft. Software suites can provide incredible insight into the overall fleet health, but they completely rely on real people inspecting airplanes, troubleshooting problems, and making repairs. Aircraft sustainment is managed at high levels, but it comes to fruition in the everyday operations of the fleet.