One Reason the US Military Can’t Fix Its Own Equipment

Manufacturers can prevent the Department of Defense from repairing certain equipment, which puts members of the military at risk. Elle Ekman, a logistics officer in the United States Marine Corps, writes: In the United States, conversations about right-to-repair issues are increasing, especially at federal agencies and within certain industries. In July, the Federal Trade Commission hosted a workshop to address “the issues that arise when a manufacturer restricts or makes it impossible for a consumer or an independent repair shop to make product repairs.” It has long been considered a problem with the automotive industry, electronics and farming equipment. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have even brought it up during their presidential campaigns, siding with farmers who want to repair their own equipment; while the senators are advocating national laws, at least 20 states have considered their own right-to-repair legislation this year.

I first heard about the term from a fellow Marine interested in problems with monopoly power and technology. A few past experiences then snapped into focus. Besides the broken generator in South Korea, I remembered working at a maintenance unit in Okinawa, Japan, watching as engines were packed up and shipped back to contractors in the United States for repairs because “that’s what the contract says.” The process took months. With every engine sent back, Marines lost the opportunity to practice the skills they might need one day on the battlefield, where contractor support is inordinately expensive, unreliable or nonexistent. I also recalled how Marines have the ability to manufacture parts using water-jets, lathes and milling machines (as well as newer 3-D printers), but that these tools often sit idle in maintenance bays alongside broken-down military equipment. Although parts from the manufacturer aren’t available to repair the equipment, we aren’t allowed to make the parts ourselves “due to specifications.”