TACOMA, Wash. — Chief Warrant Officer 3 Jason Allen got a tongue-in-cheek warning from fellow Army mechanics when he told them he wanted to work on Stryker infantry vehicles at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
“It’s not heaven like it used to be,” his friends told him before he joined the unit last year. “You’ll have to do the work.”
Since the inception of the Army’s Stryker brigades more than a decade ago, private manufacturer General Dynamics was contracted to keep the machines running instead of handing the work to enlisted soldiers, as the military does with other ground vehicles.
Now, General Dynamics’ roughly $300 million a year maintenance contract is coming to an end as the Army seeks to contain its spending.
That means more work for the enlisted mechanics in Lewis-McChord’s Stryker brigades.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Allen said he told his peers when they teased him about joining a Stryker brigade at the base south of Tacoma.
It’s a big change at Lewis-McChord, which in 2001 became the first Army installation to host Strykers.
Thirteen years later, Lewis-McChord is still the only Army post with multiple Stryker brigades. Each has more than 300 Strykers and 4,500 soldiers. Lewis-McChord has three of the brigades, though one is deactivating and sending its gear to Fort Carson in Colorado.
The initial placement of Strykers at Lewis-McChord kicked off a series of heavy investments in the program in the region.
General Dynamics has a maintenance hub at the base where the company used to do intense resets of Strykers as they returned from war. These days, the local hub has a smaller portfolio because General Dynamics sends major Stryker overhauls to a plant in Alabama.
The Defense Department also bought a warehouse in Auburn that General Dynamics used to manage a supply chain of Stryker parts. It came under scrutiny by the Defense Department Inspector General last year when auditors determined it contained about $900 million worth of outdated, unusable parts.
Army logistics experts now are expected to exercise more control of that supply chain. It’s a complicated network because Strykers come in 10 basic varieties, from infantry carriers that can haul as many as nine soldiers to ones equipped with cannons that can destroy tanks.
Also, the Army three years ago started fielding another set of Strykers with extra armor and slanted hulls designed to deflect buried mines in Afghanistan. Those Double V hull Strykers are on their way to Lewis-McChord now that the war is ending.
The catalog to keep up the full family of Stryker vehicles contains more than 8,000 parts, said Lt. Col. Bill McClary, the chief logistics officer for Lewis-McChord’s 7th Infantry Division.
“There are just thousands and thousands of items of equipment,” he said in a September interview with The News Tribune.
The Defense Department Inspector General in 2012 and 2013 issued three critical reports on the Army’s last, $1.5 billion Stryker maintenance contract with General Dynamics. Collectively, they urged the Army to start maintaining Strykers with uniformed soldiers in the same way it keeps up its tanks, helicopters and other machines.
“It’s been a matter of getting back in touch with these regulations and procedures,” said McClary, who last year conducted “wall to wall” audits of equipment in six combat brigades that report to the 7th Infantry Division.
Three years ago, before the last major infantry deployments out of Lewis-McChord, each Stryker brigade would have 44 General Dynamics mechanics on hand to maintain its vehicles. They’d work with about Army 80 mechanics in uniform.
The number of contractor mechanics has thinned to 10 per brigade with a manager and a welder. They’re responsible for scheduled maintenance. Brigades also have four General Dynamics field service representatives to advise them.
The contract for the mechanics is expected to end in February 2015, but it could be extended.
To fill the gap, the Army is adding enlisted Stryker mechanic slots to its brigades. Each should have about 90 when they reach full strength.
Mechanic-soldiers say they’re familiar with most of the Strykers and ready for the change.
“It’s a learning curve,” said Staff Sgt. Omar Henderson, who has worked on Strykers at Lewis-McChord since 2008. He deployed in 2012 with Lewis-McChord’s 2nd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.
The two Stryker varieties with artillery weapons represent the most challenging change for the mechanics, Henderson and Allen said. In years past, they said, General Dynamics mechanics were the only ones to work on those models.
“We didn’t turn any wrenches on those,” said Henderson, 33.
Now, the Army mechanics have to learn how to work with new weapons and artillery turrets.
“There’s not a special mechanic for the turret and the hull,” Allen said. “You have to do it all.”
Allen, 36, is the chief supervisor for the mechanics working on Strykers in the 2nd Brigade’s 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment. He joined the Army in 1996 and has worked on Humvees, armored vehicles and helicopters.
He wanted a Stryker assignment to have the opportunity to work with the Army’s newest equipment.
“It’s like a different language. You’re bilingual when you speak Stryker,” he said.
He says he’s mindful of the Army’s budget constraints that drew attention to the costs of wartime Stryker contracts.
“My job as a warrant officer is to make sure we go as far as we can on every dollar, to be sure there’s no waste on every part,” he said. “I’m paying taxes, too.”