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Listening to the machines

One of the keys to keeping the Army's fleet of ground vehicles in fighting shape may be equipping them to ask for help, the service's top logistician said Tuesday. It could present a big business opportunity for vendors to monitor or service the Army's thousands upon thousands of tactical and stateside vehicles.

Lt. Gen. Mitch Stevenson, the Army's top logistics officer -- known in green-speak as the G-4 -- pointed out during a panel discussion at AUSA that most of the cost for a piece of military equipment is operations and sustainment over its service life. Army mechanics and contractors are good at servicing vehicles and aircraft based on the calendar, Stevenson said, and they know to perform service or replace parts after certain numbers of miles driven or hours flown. But the Army might be able to save money and prevent accidents if it gave vehicles and aircraft the ability to report on their own readiness, he said.

Stevenson said the Army is looking into the possibilities of what he called "condition-based maintenance," in which onboard computers in vehicles or aircraft could tell soldiers in detail about the shape of their internal workings. He compared to General Motors' OnStar system, which monitors your Chevrolet and can alert you when it's time for an oil change, or when one of your car's major components isn't working anymore. Multiply that by all the vehicles and aircraft in the Army, and you're talking about a lot of boxes, network integration and potential service contracts.

About two-thirds of the Army's helicopters are set up for at least a basic version of this kind of self-reporting, Stevenson said. He described it as a success and cited "documented cases" in which soldiers have prevented an accident "because we got information from a platform that a component was going to go bad and stopped it from happening." The Army isn't where it wants to be with instrumenting its aircraft fleet, "but we're in a basic state," he said.

If more of the Army's tactical vehicles could do the same thing, "Think about what that could mean for a commander who's about to go outside the wire," Stevenson said. "Commanders would want to know, 'Is it ready?' and 'Am I about to have a failure?'"

There's no telling how big the potential market would be for these kinds of services, but at least one major player is already interested: Chris Chambers, vice president of tactical vehicles for BAE Systems, told Buzz in July that his firm wants to explore opportunities for expanding this kind of monitoring. The question now is, will the service deem it a big enough priority to fund it, or will this become a casualty of the Big Crunch?

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