CNA Accelerates Budgeting from Months to Minutes
Assembling a budget for naval aircraft engine depot repairs was a burdensome manual process until CNA built a planning tool for the Navy’s cloud.
CNA analyst Frank Wallace thought he knew the task before him in November 2021, when he invited leaders in naval aviation readiness to CNA headquarters for a design thinking workshop. The Aviation Readiness Branch had asked CNA to develop a model to optimize their budget allocations for different engine repairs. Budgeting too little for certain engine repair types had contributed to problems such as shortfalls in mission-capable Super Hornets.
But the focus changed when the naval aviation experts opened up about pain points in the annual budgeting process for aviation depot maintenance. “They put a lot of sticky notes on the board,” recalls Wallace. Three Department of the Navy offices were trying to collaborate using a planning process that began with more than 50 tabbed spreadsheets in a Microsoft Excel workbook. Data was manually entered and then copied and pasted into four other sets of workbooks at other stages in the process—inviting the possibility of human error at every step. The spreadsheets were emailed back and forth between offices over several months to work up budgets of more than $600 million. Updates like changes in flying-hour projections often couldn’t be incorporated because that would mean restarting the process. One sticky note summed up the true challenge: “How can we make this run with one click?”
The one-click budget for depot maintenance
Today, Navy users can log into the Navy’s Jupiter cloud environment to use the CNA-developed Depot Engine Planning & Allocation Readiness Tool, or DEPART, which brings all those budgeting steps into a seamless process. Need to increase flying hour projections for P-8A Poseidon aircraft? DEPART will calculate how that flying hour change increases the number of projected repairs, overhauls, and inspections of the P‑8’s engines. It will project the total cost of those maintenance events and adjust the available maintenance budget for all other engines. And it will prepare the adjusted components of a final Program Objective Memorandum budget of the type that must be submitted to Congress. The entire process in DEPART can take less than 30 seconds—and as little as one click. Naval planners are using DEPART to prepare their fiscal year 2025 engine depot maintenance budgets for the Navy Fleet, Marine Corps Fleet, Navy Reserve, and Marine Corps Reserve.
Back in 2021, when Wallace realized the Aviation Readiness Branch needed an end-to-end tool, not just a decision model, he brought together a team that ultimately numbered 14 CNA data scientists, economists, and analysts. Fortunately CNA already has decades of experience in naval aviation readiness and budgeting, as well as a scientific analyst permanently posted to the Director of Fleet Readiness. The team met in twice-weekly “scrums” as part of biweekly “sprints,” adopting a Silicon Valley approach to software development to iterate frequently in collaboration with their Navy sponsors.
A tool for budget planning analytics
They built the tool in the R programming language, taking advantage of the Navy’s new Jupiter cloud environment within the DOD’s Advana data analytics platform. This allows planners from all three offices to collaborate in real-time on the same file, rather than emailing ever-changing versions of spreadsheets. And since months have become minutes, the planners can run multiple “what-if” scenario analyses before making final budget decisions. “You can see every trade-off, what you’re losing, what you’re gaining, with every budget change,” says Wallace.
The original task—the optimization decision model—is still at the core of the tool. It uses a “greedy algorithm” to balance available funds between 305 types of engines and maintenance events, finding the solution that makes the greatest contribution to overall readiness across the fleet. Applying the algorithm retroactively to the fiscal 2022 budget, the model would have allocated significantly more to servicing F/A-18 Super Hornet engines, for example, and less for others. The net result would have funded the servicing of 146 more engines in total, while staying within budget. Better tools mean better decisions—and more Navy and Marine Corps aircraft in the air.