The U.S. Marine Corps is poised to dramatically advance its approach to maintenance and logistics on major systems due in large part to the tenacious efforts and impact of a Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) alumnus whose NPS research in autonomous, conditions-based maintenance is set to become an official Program of Record.
Marine Corps Maj. Michael Whitaker graduated from NPS in 2019 with a Master of Science degree in Computer Science. Then a captain, he was recognized with Outstanding Thesis honors for his associated thesis, “Conditions-Based Maintenance Through Autonomous Logistics,” which provided a roadmap not just to the successful implementation of predictive maintenance across the Marine Corps, but to capitalize on autonomous sensors, data science, and artificial intelligence capabilities that he learned about as a computer science student at NPS.
Following NPS, Whitaker was assigned to Headquarters Marine Corps (HQMC) Installations and Logistics (I&L) to put his research and ideas into action, initially focusing on tactical vehicle applications to improve unit readiness. After three years, the program has demonstrated effectiveness, expanding from 20 ground assets across two weapon systems to more than 245 assets across three weapon systems. In December, Whitaker's team will start on a battalion-size unit from III Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF).
“I’m a logistics officer … At NPS, I was a computer science student taking operations research coursework and I was able to intersect those disciplines to better understand this topic,” Whitaker said.
During his time at NPS, Whitaker combined that education with his experience as a logistics officer to detail a plan for conditions-based maintenance implementation, empowered by autonomous sensors and the cloud, focused on one system, the Marine Corps Medium Tactical Vehicle Replacement (MTVR).
It was exactly what Marine Corps leaders were looking for. The need to improve USMC maintenance procedures and practices was not a new concept. The implementation of conditions-based maintenance, or CBM, was a critical component of then-Lt. Gen. David H. Berger’s May 2019 strategic force design and functional concept for HQMC I&L, titled “Sustaining the Force in the 21st Century.”
Implementation was distributed through Marine Corps Order 4151.22, Conditions-Based Maintenance Plus (CBM+), published in January 2020 and supported further in April 2020 with the distribution of a white paper memo by Berger, now a general and the Commandant of the Marine Corps.
“Implementing this order requires a fundamental re-examination of how we conduct maintenance,” Berger wrote. “The operational environment requires that we do things differently.”
“CBM+ is an industry-proven concept that represents a deliberate shift from reactive equipment to a proactive, predictive approach,” he continued. “Simply put, it is maintenance based on evidence of need. This data-driven maintenance approach incorporates sophisticated equipment diagnostics, advanced analytics, and improved business processes to enable maintenance that contributes to higher equipment availability while minimizing cost and labor.
“Getting to this future state will require an organized and sustained effort across the Corps,” he stressed.
The Marine Corps selects highly-qualified officers and staff non-commissioned officers to earn graduate degrees from NPS. According to Marine Corps Col. Jason Perry, the Senior Marine Representative at NPS, Marine Corps graduates are placed in positions critical to building readiness and lethality across the service and the Naval force.
“The education and practical research experiences Marine scholars like Maj. Whitaker receive in partnership with NPS faculty and staff have direct relevance to the operational challenges facing the Marine Corps,” said Perry. “The relationship between the service, the Marine scholar and the exceptional faculty and staff of NPS is the ‘secret sauce’ in the success of our graduates who go out into the Marine Corps and make a difference.”
And Whitaker was indeed a difference-maker in the implementation of CBM+. As Lead, CBM+ and Data Analytics at HQMC I&L during the program’s implementation, Col. Kirk M. Spangenberg saw the NPS graduate’s impact first-hand.
“I was put in charge of the CBM+ effort, and it wasn’t a hard case to make to get Maj. Whitaker assigned to the team [after his NPS graduation],” Spangenberg said. “His combination of education in computer science, a bit of acquisition, and of course operations research, made him exactly what we needed to supercharge the implementation efforts of CBM+.
“In particular, he really understood the technical requirements, especially with how to manage the data,” Spangenberg continued. “Many of us understood the big picture of CBM+ and what it meant for the Marine Corps, but it was really his deep knowledge from his studies at NPS that helped guide and prioritize efforts. The Marine Corps really is much farther ahead on CBM+ implementation that we would have been without him.”
Whitaker’s plan to implement CBM+, called “predictive maintenance” among heavy-duty industries, included a function to grab diagnostic information from the Marines’ ground asset, use the cloud to transmit that data and artificial intelligence to make sense out of it, and then convert this information into actionable insights to be used by decision-makers on the ground. The Marine Corps was already collecting data through existing systems; what Whitaker wanted to add was the advantage of autonomy, and the critical architecture to make sense of the data through data science and artificial intelligence.
“The kinds of insights we’re talking about here are, how I can get ahead of when something will fail; or when something fails, how I can better understand why it failed,” Whitaker explained. “This type of information can be used to enhance what we already collect in our Marine Corps logistics system that we already use.”
Whitaker’s thesis was based in part on a research project made available through NPS’ Naval Research Program, an effort through the school’s Naval Warfare Studies Institute (NWSI) that engages senior leadership across the Navy and Marine Corps to bring their challenges and issues to NPS for student/faculty research.
He jumped on a project in support of HQMC I&L entitled, “Improving USMC Ground Maintenance through Vehicle Sensors and Analytics.” Whitaker’s efforts caught the attention of Marine Corps Maj. Gen. David Maxwell, then Assistant Deputy Commandant for Installations and Logistics (Plans, Policies and Strategic Mobility), during a brief on the project. With the CBM+ guidance coming from top leadership, and the effort a priority across the organization, Whitaker’s assignment to Spangenberg’s team post-graduation was a no-brainer.
“I would say [Maxwell] was my first champion and the first leader to really say what you’re doing is important,” Whitaker recalled. “And by the way, let’s make sure that the organization knows that you’re doing something important. So, he announced it to the organization so people knew I was there for a reason.
“After that, he said, ‘All right, you’re here now. Make it happen,’” Whitaker added.
Fortunately, Whitaker says, the CBM+ implementation team was loaded with fellow NPS graduates that each brought expertise critical to getting to the finish line.
“[Maxwell] basically built a cell of all these other NPS Marine Corps grads with different degrees. One of them was operations research, another was business,” Whitaker said. “When I say it wasn’t just me by myself, it was truly a team of Marines working towards an effort.
“General Maxwell’s mantra for our team was ‘think big, start small and spiral up,” he continued. “Don’t try to solve the whole entire Marine Corps problem in this space, but do something really small and show value immediately.”
While CBM+ has proven successful across the commercial industry for many years, its implementation in the Marine Corps represents a paradigm shift forward in modernizing USMC maintenance necessary for the service’s Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO) force design.
In his current position as Commanding Officer of Marine Depot Maintenance Command, Spangenberg’s organization will most likely be a leading provider of CBM+ for the USMC when fully implemented, monitoring systems at distance and providing proactive maintenance insights to Marines across the force.
“This is really going to move the needle on readiness, with increased operational availability of weapons systems at less cost,” Spangenberg said. “Under our [EABO] force design construct, with larger number of smaller units deployed away from a central hub, it’s critical that our weapons systems are working optimally.”
“At the end of the day, mechanics will still turn wrenches,” Whitaker stressed. “But what it will do is give us precision on when it’s time to maintain an item. It’s going to give us the ability to sustain and regenerate combat power in a way where we are making really educated guesses, beforehand.”
Whitaker credits his interdisciplinary education at NPS in operations research, computer science, and even a class in acquisition, that helped him understand the technical complexity of a system that crosses disciplines. He built advocacy with leaders for his vision, and worked with partners in developing a product that is validated in the field, cyber secure, and ready to scale.
“Now we can do what we did with a surety based off of facts, based off of experience and based off of information,” Whitaker said. “I would say that is extremely powerful.”