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RAFB commander Peyer’s eyes on Robins’ future

ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE — After six months on the job, Maj. Gen. Polly Peyer has drawn some fundamental conclusions about the present and future of Robins Air Force Base — conclusions that will hold true, she insists, despite tough economic times, possible cuts in defense spending or even another Base Realignment and Closure process.

Peyer commands the Warner Robins Air Logistics Center, the host agency at Robins and the unit most responsible for the $4 billion in economic impact that pours out of the installation each year.

The center directly employs about 15,000 people, largely civilian workers, and it provides worldwide support for the Air Force’s F-15 fighters; C-130, C-5 and C-17 airlifters; U-2 aerial reconnaissance aircraft; Global Hawk and other remotely piloted vehicles; software and avionics for most systems and subsystems; electronic warfare and more.

That support includes overall system management and engineering oversight, extensive repair and overhaul of aircraft and components and a manufacturing base that comes into play when components are not commercially available or lead times are critically short. All of that is spread over 8,000 acres with facilities that carry a replacement value close to $6 billion.

Peyer’s take on the present and future is decidedly upbeat.

“I’m an optimist by nature,” she said during an hourlong interview last week. “I don’t overreact to a lot of speculation.”

Taking care of the fundamentals will serve Robins — and Middle Georgia — well, the veteran aircraft maintenance officer believes. Those essentials include continuing to develop a flexible work force, operating the center from a business perspective and viewing Robins and Middle Georgia from a broad perspective.

She concedes that current economic conditions could drive defense spending cuts and early retirement of older aircraft, but she believes the center can adjust.

“The defense budget is a major economic engine for the country, so whatever the administration does has to be done in light of the economic challenges we have on our hands,” Peyer said. “But I think we are flexible enough to accommodate any change in force structure or priorities as long as we have enough reaction time.”

The center’s sustainment focus — taking care of existing systems and equipment rather than developing and purchasing new ones — offers inherent stability.

“We may not be doing as much scheduled, predictable work in the future, but there will always be such things as the F-15 longeron, C-130 center wing box and C-5 modifications,” she pointed out, referring to major projects to either enhance safety of flight or performance on those aircraft. “So we need to focus on having a work force flexible enough to accommodate different types of workload as it comes at us. That’s why we have been advocating multiskilled technicians so we can reapply them as the workload changes.”

WORKLOAD HIT?

The Air Force reportedly wants to retire 137 F-15s earlier than programmed. Some officials also favor retiring the older C-5A fleet and buying additional C-17s. Some observers believe that those potential cuts could mean less workload for Robins, but Peyer disagrees. She contends that it likely would place even more emphasis on inspecting, repairing and modifying the remaining weapon systems.

“No matter how you look at it, sustaining the fleet will become more important,” she said. “The smaller fleet will have the same stresses on it, so the adjustments will have to come in how you sustain them.”

Robins’ future — and its continued impact on Middle Georgia — must include a broader perspective, the Florida State University graduate said. That picture includes both organic work on the base and the contributions by contractors.

“We can’t look at Robins as a single entity,” she said. “Everybody’s concerned about contractors and the playoff (of work) between contract and organic. But the mix probably doesn’t matter as long as the business stays here. If we isolate ourselves and worry only about the organic piece, we will miss the big picture.”

A major part of that big picture is G-RAMP, the Georgia-Robins Aerospace Maintenance Partnership. Local leaders are pushing the effort to build an aircraft maintenance and overhaul complex adjacent to Robins on 544 acres of land owned by the city of Warner Robins. The goal of the $70 million enterprise would be to capture Robins workload now going to other locations because the base has insufficient hangar space.

Supporters say the project would create about 800 new jobs and pump an additional $100 million into the local economy each year. Investors would be repaid by lease fees collected from Robins contractors. Robins would benefit from lower overall contract costs and maximum use of its back shops, including sheet metal, avionics, paint, depaint and others. Robins also could become a subcontractor to companies performing military-related work. So far, the investment dollars have not materialized.

Peyer believes G-RAMP would greatly benefit the base and the local economy.

“Companies that want to bring business to a location look at the infrastructure,” she said. “So if it’s already developed, it is an attraction. I know it’s hard in these tough economic times to ask people to make an investment. But access to our runway and taxiway and to our industrial complex is very lucrative for companies looking for a place to bring new business or to relocate.”

Peyer confirmed that some opportunities have slipped away just in the last six months. “Of course we can’t guarantee workload,” she added, “but I see G-RAMP as a necessary investment for the future. The base is very densely packed. We’re already building buildings between buildings.”

BASE REALIGNMENT AND CLOSURE

Twenty years ago, the BRAC process was developed to try to reach the government’s goal of closing and realigning military installations despite the political challenges that arise when facilities face reduction or elimination. Nationwide, hundreds of military facilities have been closed during rounds of BRAC reviews during that span.

As for BRAC, Peyer believes air logistics centers are much better positioned than in 1995 when the number of centers was reduced from five to the current three. One reason is efficiency.

“Centers were not efficient back then — say 65 percent efficient because they wanted a 35 percent surge capacity. It was Cold War mentality,” she said. “Now, all three have about 90 percent efficiency. Our surge capacity is our ability to work overtime, hire more people and team with our industrial partners.”

That efficiency and a huge investment in facilities make Robins and the two other centers less likely candidates for closure.

“I would argue that it would not make sense to reduce that industrial capacity,” Peyer said.

“I know people have said this before, but I also can’t comprehend how you can move that capability somewhere else without tremendous risk to our national security. I’m not arguing for or against a BRAC. We’ll do what the administration wants us to do. But our dynamics are different now than in the 1990s.”

Even with that efficiency and massive capacity, the general has issues to work. One is a slowdown in C-130 and F-15 depot maintenance.

“We take care of Special Operations Command C-130s here,” she said. “They’ve been driven hard and driven again with a lot of unknown conditions. As we opened them up, we had to add hours to the work package. We tried to contain that within our resources and got buried.”

A defective upper cockpit longeron that grounded more than 400 F-15 A through D aircraft required fleetwide inspections and the quick manufacture and replacement of the critical structural component.

“That backed a lot of things up on the F-15 line,” Peyer said, although she quickly added that actual productivity within the maintenance complex in terms of yield hours has increased over the last four years.

“That is an indicator of our ability to accommodate more workload and be efficient,” she said.

Efficiency in terms of the cost of operations is also up.

“A lot of people have questioned the financials, but we have beat our projections and we were in the best financial posture of any of the three logistics centers in fiscal year 2008,” she said.

Another issue is worker complaints — uncomfortably high at this point —with most of them coming from the center’s massive 402nd Maintenance Wing.

Peyer said she is working with Tom Scott, president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 987, to identify the root causes. Local 987 is the bargaining unit for most civilian workers on base.

Worker concerns center on three areas: overtime, the administration of physical fitness time and annual appraisals.

“We have a huge number of people in the maintenance wing, about 8,000,” Peyer said. “It’s a harsh environment and the complaints wax and wane. Whatever the percentage of complaints, it’s still a relatively small percentage of the work force. Tom Scott and I recognize that we need to make improvements in management-labor relations.”

That’s a major challenge this year, she said, as the center reinforces its motto: People first, mission always.

“Our job is to find out what the dissatisfiers are and smooth the flow.” she said. “We want to identify what keeps our workers satisfied and wanting to come to work every day.”

The general said that worker satisfaction is a vital ingredient of what she wants to accomplish during her Robins tenure.

“To remain competitive demands a level of effort and engagement from them,” she said. “People have to realize that and they do in most cases.”

But the acknowledgements flow both ways, a key distinction in troubled economic times.

“We protect our work force, probably more so in the government than in private business,” the commander pointed out. “You see companies falling all around us, and our workers need to appreciate that we continue to look out for them.”

In the final analysis, Peyer insists that Robins’ fate — both now and in the future — rests on keeping an unblinking eye on the fundamentals.

“That is, we must run this center as a business,” she said. “That means we must be competitive. We must watch our financials. We must take care of the work force. We must be productive. It’s no different than any other business.”

To contact Gene Rector, call 923-3109, extension 239.

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