Rapidly fielding combat capability: A test in innovation and teamwork

by Capt. Scott Hall
20th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron

10/15/2009 - SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. -- Somewhere in Afghanistan, a J-TAC calls in close air support for an Army patrol under enemy fire. 

The mountainous terrain makes it difficult to send and receive radio transmissions with the aircrew. Enemy forces seem to be advancing, and minutes feel like hours as the ground controller radios for help. Suddenly, out of nowhere a 20th Fighter Wing F-16CJ Fighting Falcon screams in and drops two GBU-38 bombs. 

Moments later, there is only silence coming from where enemy forces once stood. 

The soldiers regroup and continue their mission with a renewed confidence that someone "above" is watching over them. 

If this scenario had occurred six months earlier, that same 20th FW jet may not have received the J-TAC transmission in time. 

In April 2009, the 20th Maintenance Group received a call from the F-16 System Program Office that a new capability would be fielded for the 79th Fighter Squadron's upcoming Afghanistan deployment. Only one minor detail needed to be worked out: The capability didn't exist yet! The SPO would develop and field this modification as a just-in-time initiative, completing the final installs only days before the unit's deployment departure date. 

Acquisitions managers designed this latest initiative to expedite combat capability to the warfighter. Ultimately, it became a success story for innovation, continuous process improvement and teamwork. 

The new aircraft modification was the Beyond Line of Sight satellite communications radio upgrade, which allows aircraft to communicate with coalition forces via satellite interface. Communication with ground forces would otherwise be unreliable due to interference from mountainous terrain. Furthermore, the combined forces air component commander mandated this capability for all F-16s entering the Operation ENDURING FREEDOM area of operation. 

The BLOS fielding would test the prowess of the 20th MXG through a variety of challenges that would consume manpower, equipment, and aircraft availability. Fortunately, the group would not go it alone; the Ogden Air Logistics Center's 573rd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, 309th Aircraft Maintenance Group provided a robust depot field team to perform the modification. 

Still, the parts delivery schedule and AFCENT deployment timeline drove a very aggressive installation schedule, dedicating between five and six aircraft to the BLOS modification at a time. Additionally, the JIT installation plan required the field level maintenance unit to remove and install several aircraft components to help facilitate the DFT BLOS modification. Removal, installation, and operational checks of items such as the seat and canopy, jet fuel starter, hydraulic reservoir, gun barrels, avionics components and engine required 22 maintainers, three days, and two 12-hour shifts per aircraft to meet the installation timeline. 

Furthermore, the modification timing imposed risks to the flying schedule while the pilots trained for combat operations. 

In mid August 2009, the SPO conducted the initial design kit proof here one week before the scheduled installation start date. The kit proof identified several shortfalls that would test the SPO and depot teams' resourcefulness. First, the kit delivery schedule did not meet the installation timeline and several kit shipments were short parts. Next, the engineering drawings did not match the deploying aircraft configuration, which then required maintainers to cannibalize environmental ducting from other aircraft. 

Moreover, functional checks required special test equipment the field unit did not use. Technical orders did not include troubleshooting, ordering parts, corrosion control or aircraft pre/post flight inspections. Last, no software was available, spare parts were not contracted, and no satellite time was planned to operationally check the modified system. 

With several modification risks identified only weeks before the impending deployment date, senior leaders from the SPO, ALC, ACC, 20th MXG, 20th OG and the contractor established a "stakeholder's" working group that soon tackled every obstacle; the most critical being parts shortages. The contractor developed a parts delivery forecast to determine the number of aircraft that could begin the modification as parts shipped. To overcome kit shortages, the DFT modified the aircraft in sections as parts delivered. After purchasing the required test equipment, the team developed a procedure to complete operational checks and return aircraft to flight status while awaiting final parts delivery. 

The remaining logistical hurdles were critical for the unit to successfully sustain the modified system in the field. With no fielded software available, the team used flight test software to verify the new avionics system worked properly before returning modified aircraft to the flying schedule. Likewise, to ensure the unit had spare parts on hand in theater, Nellis AFB shipped assets from the flight test program. 

Also, missing ducting parts were located and sourced through the supply system, alleviating the need to cannibalize parts from other aircraft. The contractor and local engineers worked together to develop interim troubleshooting guidance for avionics technicians. Meanwhile, the team borrowed SATCOM time from other programs so pilots could functional check the modified system. 

Without a doubt, the DFT's willingness to integrate the modification effort with the maintenance unit's prep and rebuild was the most critical component in the successful execution of the installation plan. Both teams worked together and identified a systematic process to integrate aircraft prep, modification, component installs and functional checks. First, the DFT modified the aircraft in sections, starting with the cockpit and moving towards the tail section. Then, as the DFT routed the wire harnesses, the maintenance unit followed behind and installed the components in that section. 

This innovative process significantly reduced aircraft downtime and the modification program finished two weeks ahead of schedule.
As the DFT became more proficient with modification installs, they began to improve upon the original engineering design and lessened the maintenance unit's prep/rebuild burden. Initially, the team found they could route the wire harnesses without removing the JFS. 

After that, they were able to modify the cockpit using a raise and tilt of the seat, which alleviated the need to remove the seat and canopy. Finally, with only days remaining, the DFT successfully modified an aircraft engine bay without fully removing the engine. The maintenance and depot team demonstrated ingenuity that saved the field unit an amazing 122 man-hours per aircraft. 

The maintenance unit also showed impressive innovation by integrating the BLOS modification into the scheduled maintenance plan for its AEF deployment prep. When possible, scheduled maintenance actions were bundled with BLOS tasks. Managers scheduled egress time changes with the seat and canopy removal. 

Similarly, production supervisors delayed or accelerated engine changes and inspections in conjunction with the modification. Crew chiefs thoroughly evaluated the airframe and components for opportunities to repair delayed discrepancies. Specialists performed a new digital video recorder modification while avionics components were removed. Weapons expeditors skillfully integrated armament systems reliability checks into the final operational checks. 

Ultimately, these scheduling initiatives avoided approximately 367 hours of aircraft non-mission capable time and reinvested 877 man-hours back into sortie generation. 

The success of this JIT program was a pinnacle moment that shifted the paradigms of the acquisitions and maintenance communities. By combining the DFT and field unit efforts, the modification and aircraft prep was completed in time for the 79th Fighter Squadron's AEF, ensuring 12 BLOS modified F-16s successfully deployed on Oct. 7. 

These overwhelming results are a testament to the amazing working relationship cultivated by the DFT and maintenance field unit. 

The F-16 SPO recorded the lessons learned and best practices to incorporate into additional BLOS modifications that will occur simultaneously across three bases. The 20th MXG and 309th AMXG team benchmarked these procedures to prepare for the 20th FW's next deployment and BLOS upgrade, with plans to incorporate even more scheduled maintenance. Most importantly, the program's success means U.S. and coalition troops on the ground can continue to fight for freedom in Afghanistan knowing air power will show up in time.