DoD taking new approach to ‘paralyzingly large’ facility maintenance backlog

A new model aims to allocate DoD's limited facility sustainment dollars toward buildings where the funding can do the most good. But the funding model itself is...

The Defense Department has been underinvesting in facility upkeep for years, and its maintenance backlog keeps getting bigger. DoD says it’s now rolling out new tools that won’t necessarily solve the problem, but will at least help officials make better decisions on exactly how they’re spending their maintenance dollars.

According to the Government Accountability Office, the department has a deferred maintenance backlog of at least $137 billion. But that figure is almost certainly a major underestimate, for several reasons. For one, it’s based on 2020 data. It also doesn’t account for the facilities that are already past their useful lifespans — and nearly a third of DoD’s facilities meet that criteria.

The problem is getting worse each year because the department has consistently underbudgeted for what its own facilities sustainment model says is needed to keep its structures in good working order. And since funding has proven to be a difficult challenge, officials say they’re now pivoting to a new model that focuses their limited sustainment dollars on the facilities that matter most, and where they can do the most good.

“The sustainment management system that we’re developing and will be implementing — and that the Marines have done a very good job of understanding — recognizes that facilities optimization is not a total dollars game,” Brendan Owens, the assistant secretary of Defense for energy, installations and environment told the Senate Armed Services Committee this week. “It’s much more about how we look at recapitalization over time, and at a high level, making sure that we have the sustainment of facilities so that the degradation doesn’t begin.”

Officials hope to use the system to rebalance their overall facility sustainment restoration and modernization (FSRM) accounts. For instance, it might make sense to put more money toward keeping facilities that are in good shape from deteriorating, and less on painting over cracks in buildings that have already failed.

The new system isn’t planned to be fully in place until 2026, but the department is asking Congress for more funding this year to speed up its development. Officials say the biggest change is managing and prioritizing DoD’s facility sustainment dollars with more granular data, rather than treating all buildings essentially equally in one large portfolio.

“The way we’ve sustained our facilities is by funding them at a percentage of the plant replacement value, and that might have served DoD in the past, but I don’t think that’s a way ahead that’s sustainable. We’ve got a backlog that is paralyzingly large,” Owens said. “And that method of funding is not aligned with the way that buildings fail. They don’t fail linearly, they fail episodically over the course of time in a downward degradation. If you allow that degradation to begin, you never get those buildings back up to what they should have been without a major recapitalization.”

The Air Force has already started some initial efforts to move to a more targeted, prioritized approach to how it spends its FSRM dollars. That service created a new infrastructure investment strategy in 2019 and expects to update it this year.

Ravi Chaudhary, the assistant secretary of the Air Force for energy, installations and environment said the strategy aims to prioritize spending that most directly impacts a given installation’s primary mission, and give local commanders more discretion over infrastructure projects.

“It’s going to look at what type of facilities need to go away, and start getting at this maintenance issue,” he said. “One of the areas that I want to focus in on, for example, is our unaccompanied housing. We’ve launched a dormitory master plan to take a look at what our program schedule is going to be, and what we found is that we need to invest a lot more — a four-fold increase from 2022 to 2026. So we’ve identified it, characterized it, and now we’re putting in the right investments to get us to where we need to be.”

Meanwhile, the Marine Corps’ early work, using what that service calls its Readiness Maximization Tool, is focused on driving maintenance dollars toward what officials deem to be their most important facilities.

The service started implementing that new strategy at the beginning of this fiscal year, said Meredith Berger, the assistant secretary of the Navy for energy, installations and environment.

“It looks at the whole pile of FSRM money … to make sure that there’s more good money going towards good — toward the facilities that count more,” she said. “This is a tool that we are looking at and learning from, and it will help us think about our 30 year infrastructure plan to make sure that we are aligning the best dollars in the best places. We want to put appropriate dollars where they count, and align risk, mission assurance, all of the other considerations we’d use for any other platform.”

GAO acknowledges that adequately funding upkeep for DoD facilities is a massive challenge, partly because of the sheer size of the portfolio: The department estimates it owns 668,000 facilities around the world, with a total plant replacement value of $1.8 trillion.

But more data-driven prioritization would definitely help matters, said Elizabeth Field, a GAO director for Defense capability and management issues.

“When we conducted our review of the deferred maintenance backlog, we found that the facilities that are so often the first to lose out on funding are the ones most directly tied to quality-of-life: barracks where junior enlisted service members live, for example, or childcare centers,” she said. “The effects of this are clear, and in discussion groups we have held at military installations around the country, service members have consistently told us that the condition of their housing impacts their perception of the military, and in some cases, their decision on whether to re-enlist. As one young soldier said to us, ‘If we get the bare minimum in the barracks, the Army will get the bare minimum from us.’ The readiness implications of this problem are, I think, obvious.”


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