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Fighting the Clock

Fighting the Clock 1019
Fighting the Clock 1019

Air National Guardsmen from across the country will gather here in the Sonoran Desert this month to discuss the continuing battle against one of the military’s fiercest enemies: time.

Pilots, maintainers and battlefield airmen along with senior leaders preparing for the future will meet for the annual Weapons and Tactics Conference (WEPTAC) to discuss what’s required to keep aging reserve-component aircraft in the fight as threats evolve.

Representatives of the defense industry also attend to share the latest technology, its application to requirements and costs.

“We look at time as an element that isn’t always on our side,” says Col. Mathew Wenthe, the commander of the Air National Guard Air Force Reserve Command Test Center here, which hosts the annual conference. “We share problems and find solutions. And we want to move fast.”

WEPTAC sets the Air Guard’s modernization priorities and provides the AATC, the Air Guard’s modernization incubator, with a to-do list.

The AATC, which is made up of about 200 airmen, civilians and contractors, is responsible for operational and develop-mental testing and tactics development for all weapons systems in the Air Guard and Air Force Reserve. This often involves retrofitting advanced technology on some of the oldest aircraft in the Air Force fleet, often by using off-the-shelf items that can be adopted faster and cheaper than other Air Force developmental programs.

Team members say they have to be creative. With time short and funding mostly from the congressionally directed National Guard and Reserve Equipment Account, convention is not an option. This has many referring to themselves as “mad scientists.”

“We’re not out to get the 110% gold-plated solution,” Wenthe says.

"We look for the 80% solution at 20% of the cost.”

That’s not to say that speed is everything. Wenthe says his team isn’t running with scissors. It wants to field faster, but also test better and aim for continuous improvement, no matter the program.

“It’s on us to leverage what we can do more than just maintain relevancy,” Wenthe says. “Whatever we do, it doesn’t count until it’s fielded.”

That formula has spelled success for the AATC, which has not only kept the Air Guard’s fleet of older aircraft relevant, but in some ways have advanced them beyond newer models of the same planes, particularly when it comes to F-16 and A-10 fighters and C-130 cargo aircraft.

“We’re putting fifth-generation capabilities on fourth-generation aircraft,” the commander says. “We’re pushing these legacy aircraft past where some of their younger siblings are.”

AATC is a composite flying organization. It possesses seven F-16C Block 25/32 aircraft to support the primary mission of F-16 Operational Flight Program. It also has access to many other aircraft, including A-10 and F-15 fighters, C-130s, F-15 Eagles, KC-135 tankers and HH-60 rescue helicopters and even MQ-9 remotely piloted aircraft.

The bottom-up approach of the annual conference includes breaking groups of airmen up by aircraft or specialty, which is also how the AATC operates.

Teams, known as CTFs (combined  test  forces) focus on each airframe, plus maintenance and battlefield airmen. Comprised of Guardsmen, Reservists and civilians nationwide, they exist across geographically separated locations, including the Tuscon Air National Guard Base and Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona, Little Rock Air Force Base in Arkansas and Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.

But the bulk of the work occurs at the AATC’s head-quarters in Tucson.

We're pushing these legacy aircraft past where some of their younger siblings are.

—Col. Matthew Wenthe, the commander of the Air National Guard Air Force Reserve Command Test Center

ON THE FLIGHT LINE just outside the AATCs headquarters one day last summer, a steady stream of F-16s were coming and going. Some were piloted by AATC person-nel, others by the Arizona Air Guard’s 162nd Fighter Wing, which is the test center’s host unit.

Airmen with the AATC were installing and testing a new center display unit that replaces the round-dial instruments of the F-16 with a modern, high-definition screen.

In the past, AATC team tested Active Electronically Scanned Array radar now being installed on many Guard F-16s and the helmet-mounted integrated targeting system. Current efforts also involve upgrades to the jet’s defenses against electronic warfare and software upgrades meant to increase the fighter’s combat capabilities.

A few miles away, another team is working to improve the decades-old A-10, a fighter the Air Force has long tried to retire but can’t because it is infantryman’s best friend. Test center efforts have increased the accuracy of the planes’ smart weapon systems and introduced an improved radio for use in combat search and rescue missions — one that can hone in on a downed pilot.

The active-component has adopted many of the upgrades, usu-ally at the behest of combatant commanders.

“We’re taking advantage of better technology and better imaging,” says Lt. Col. Jesse Smith, motioning to a new cockpit display. “On the old system, you couldn’t tell the difference between a shovel and an AK-47.”

Now, the A-10 team is focusing on jam-resistant GPS and 3D audio to improve situational awareness and warning systems.

“The work we’re doing here is keeping the A-10 relevant, not just for the current fight,” Smith says. “We’re looking to solve more than today’s problems. We’re prolonging the A-10 lifecycle.”

There’s no doubt in Smith’s mind that AATC efforts have saved lives overseas. He says leaders often hear from deployed airmen who share success with equipment that comes first through the center.

“It’s a good feeling,” he says. “I look at this as a dream job. It’s about what combat capability we’re adding or improving.”

Some of the AATCs biggest successes in past years have involved night-vision goggles for use in aircraft undertaking home-land defense missions, new engines and propellers for C-130Hs, and the adaptation of LITENING targeting pods for F-16 and A-10 aircraft.

The LITENING pods are a futuristic-looking pod mounted on the aircraft that enable the precise delivery of laser-guided munitions. The first LITENING pods entered Air Guard service in 2000 and immediately transformed some of the oldest F-16s in the Air Force fleet into some of its most capable.

A CTF is currently working to adapt the system for C-130 air-craft to increase the accuracy of high-altitude airdrops and assist in search-and-rescue missions.

In other areas, AATC has also introduced new equipment for aircraft maintainers, improved aircraft defense systems and is working to test a new all-terrain vehicle for battlefield airmen, such as combat controllers and Tactical Air Control Party members.

The test center has also played a big part in the Air Force’s light-at-tack program. It has done extensive testing of the turboprops vying to become the aircraft selected. In fact, AATC pilots in 2011 were the first to drop laser-guided bombs from Textron’s AT-6 Wolverine.

We borrow flight hours, aircraft, maintainers. Units recognize they have to make these investments in us if they want new stuff.

—Lt. Col. Joel Soukup of the AATC's combat search-and rescue team

DESPITE ITS IMPORTANT MISSION, the AATC has been historically short-handed and under-equipped. This forces the test center officials to borrow “people and iron” from other units nationwide to conduct its work.

“We don’t actually own any jets,” says Smith, standing in front of an A-10 from Fort Wayne, Indiana and another from Boise, Idaho. “We possess some, but they’re loaners.”

“We beg, borrow and steal,” adds Lt. Col. Joel Soukup of the AATC’s combat search-and-rescue team. “We borrow flight hours, aircraft, maintainers. Units recognize they have to make these in-vestments in us if they want new stuff.”

Soukup’s CTF is currently working to improve the flow of information within HH-60s. Currently, HH-60 helicopter pilots must carry a laptop to access the battlefield data they need for rescue operations. The CTF is working to better manage the data systems that provide information on the locations of friendly forces and enemies, all on a screen available in the helicopter’s display.

“That gets things moving faster,” he says. “We’re not developing anything new, but integrating existing technology.”

AATC traces its history to the late 1970s and attempts to modernize the F-100 Super Sabre, which at the time was a Guard-only aircraft.

“It was two dudes trying to put rockets on an F-100,” Wenthe says. “It’s only grown from there.”

Officials formally created the test center in 1982 as the Fighter Weapons Office. For decades, the Guard had operated with older jets that were less prepared for war than the fighters their active-component counterparts flew.

And the new organization sought to close a gap created over decades of modernization policies with low-risk, off-the-shelf  improvements.

Officials chose Tucson as the location for its year-round weather, great expanse of air space free from commercial air carriers and expansive nearby bombing ranges.

Decades later, AATC has expanded its mission to airlift, special operations and aircraft maintenance. It continues to grow, with officials looking to add teams focused on cyber and space. But it remains one of the Air Force’s smallest test centers.

Officials say the AATC’s mission is more important than ever given the shift in National Defense Strategy to focus on future near-peer fights and great-power competition.

Lt. Col. Dustin Brown works on electronic warfare efforts for AATC. He says the work is also about staying at least a step ahead of our adversaries.

“The rapid pace of technology change in this day and age is such that a small change can completely negate what used to be years of advantage,” he says. “Our adversaries know that. They can negate multi-million-dollar equipment. We develop a counter-measure. It becomes this dance.”

“The name of the game is to stay one step ahead,” Wenthe says. “We’re helping with the long game.”

Our Take

The significant performance upgrades the Air National Guard Air Force Reserve Command Test Center has made on legacy aircraft is testament that funds appropriated for Air Guard modernization are dollars well spent. In addition, the annual Weapons and Tactics Conference and its field-driven process has proven highly effective in identifying and prioritizing Air Guard modernization requirements. That’s why association staff attend almost every year and WEPTAC findings greatly inform NGAUS legislative priorities. This 31st annual gathering is set for Oct. 21-23. The Air Guard publishes conference results in the annual Air National Guard Weapons Systems Modernization Priorities Book. The Mod Book, as it is known, with its by-system sections is an invaluable resource for the association, congressional staffers and others interested in Air Guard modernization. It is available online at www.ang.af.mil/Home/ANG-Priorities-Books. Army Guard leaders have taken notice of the WEPTEC process. They would do well to emulate it.