January 12, 2010 (by Barbara Fisher) - Until a few weeks ago, a Marine under heavy enemy fire on a remote Afghanistan hillside could not talk directly with the F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot until they were in line-of-sight to provide air support.
USAF F-16C block 50 #00-0221 from the 79th EFS at Bagram AB, conducts operations over Eastern Afghanistan on November 26th, 2009. [USAF photo by SSgt. Michael B. Keller]
Their conversation would oftentimes be relayed back and forth through other aircraft, command and control centers or get lost in transmission.
Today, however, F-16 pilots from Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., are flying in Afghanistan with a radio system that allows them to talk directly with that Marine on a desolate hillside with clear tone, thanks to the efforts of a team from around the country - including many from Hill Air Force Base's 508th Aerospace Sustainment Wing, 309th Maintenance Wing, Wright Patterson AFB
's 312th Aerospace Systems Group and the Air National Guard Air Force Reserve Test Center in Arizona.
The push to make a direct conversation possible between an F-16 pilot and a ground troop began in earnest in late January 2009. The commander of U.S. Forces Central Command sent out a message identifying an "urgent operational need" for a Beyond Line-of-Sight (BLOS) radio capability for all F-16s deploying to Air Force CENTCOM's area of responsibility, which includes Afghanistan and Iraq
That BLOS capability, according to Matt Regan, Hill's F-16 BLOS program manager, allows an F-16 pilot to:
- Talk with ground troops - be they Marines, Army, or other coalition forces - even in remote mountainous locations;
- Talk to command and control centers that might be located "over the horizon" or great distances away; and,
- Talk with other aircraft that might be commanding the skies.
"The need for more 'jointness' in the theater of operations drove this request," Mr. Regan said. "We needed to develop a radio network for the F-16 that would allow all of these pieces and elements of the battlefield to talk together and communicate effectively."
In 2007, while Mr. Regan was still on active duty as an aircraft maintenance sergeant, the Air Force began deploying Secure Line of Sight radio capability on the F-16. This capability includes an "off-the-shelf" radio made by Rockwell Collins that is already used on Air Force F-15 and A-10 aircraft and Navy F/A-18 aircraft. This radio provides two-way voice or data communications in several frequency ranges in either normal, secure or jam-resistant modes.
While this radio allowed the F-16 pilot to talk with joint forces on the ground, the pilot still could not talk via satellite with troops and other aircraft beyond line of sight, in mountainous, or other inhospitable environments - something especially needed by those serving in Afghanistan. The fix for this would be to add an antenna and radome to the existing radio.
To meet the urgent operational need AVIATECH Corporation was contracted by Hill AFB as they possessed an off-the-shelf satellite communication antenna and radome assembly that could be integrate quickly on the F-16 to provide this capability. They partnered with Cooper Antenna's to provide the antenna and Atlas Composites to develop the radome assembly. From contract award to initial kit delivery, AVIATECH fulfilled this requirement in only 5 months, normally a 12-18 month process.
"The antenna we're adding to the radio allows the pilot to communicate with satellites," Mr. Regan said. "They can now get down low or behind mountains without losing contact with the rest of the joint force."
But adding an antenna to the F-16 is not as simple as buying it at a store, hooking it up to the radio and then mounting it on top of the F-16 because of the multitude of configurations.
"Right off the bat, we were faced with funding and schedule dilemmas, software integration problems and accelerating contracts with vendors to get the parts to make kits," Mr. Regan said.
Congress came through with the funding, and a Rapid Response Team was formed in February, that included people from Hill, Wright Patterson, Headquarters Air Combat Command, Air National Guard, Air Force Reserve, and Lockheed Martin to work out the software and other engineering and integration issues with the radio and antenna on the various configurations of the F-16. The team received significant support from the Air National Guard Air Force Reserve Test Center in Tucson, Ariz., who effectively developed the technical solution and conducted qualification testing for the upgraded radio and antenna on the F-16C, block 30
"There is not one capability more important to an Airman than better communications with the ground forces," said Col. Lenny Dick, AATC
project officer for the F-16 BLOS capability. "The capabilities this brings to our Guard and Reserve F-16s that will deploy cannot be overemphasized."
Shaw's maintenance community also had to drop just about everything else to make the modification happen for the one squadron of jets that deployed.
"All of the parts were delivering late to need," Mr. Regan said, "which means we had little or no time to deliver kits to the units, get them installed, and provide adequate training to pilots and maintainers before deployment. We had to put our depot modification team, from the 309 Aircraft Maintenance Group at Hill AFB, on the ground at Shaw with incomplete kits for the planes and a very challenging schedule, and ask them to do the impossible. They hit it out of the park!"
"You would normally never want to put a unit through that pain," said Lt. Col. Timothy Dickinson, 501st Aircraft Sustainment Squadron commander, "but because this was so urgent, it became more than people just doing their jobs, this became monumental across a very wide and diverse team."
Shaw's F-16s, which successfully deployed in October, were the first deploying aircraft with the new capability. The work to add the radio and antenna to the F-16 will continue into 2012. Locally, the 388th Fighter Wing has installed BLOS capabilities in some aircraft for deployments.
While getting the first aircraft ready for deployment in less than 45 days was "a huge team success," Mr. Regan said "We have many more challenges in front of us.
"It's just truly awesome - the capability is out there and it's working as advertised. It's giving the warfighter what they need."