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Warfighters reap benefits as critical upgrades continue

HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. (AFNS) -- The AWACS 40/45 program office is delivering, and potentially accelerating, critical upgrades to the service's primary platform.

Replacing the mission computing system and software originally installed in the 1970s, the new capability will enhance tracking and combat identification capabilities in addition to providing operators with a better picture of the battlespace, said 1st Lt. Evan Porter, Block 40/45 production lead.

"The 40/45 capabilities put AWACS at the forefront, especially in theater," he said.

Following the delivery of six aircraft with the modifications to the 552nd Air Control Wing at Tinker AFB, Okla., the Air Combat Command commander declared initial operational capability in July. The program is now in full rate production with three additional aircraft in the modification process, one of which inducted early. The next aircraft is slated to begin modifications in December.

According to program officials, the team has worked aggressively to overcome multiple challenges to achieve these program successes and continues to look for ways to overcome additional challenges brought on by budget uncertainty.

"The Block 40/45 program office continues to execute the program successfully by continually assessing budget and aggressively pursuing innovative should-cost savings initiatives, using appropriate contracts to save additional cost and schedule," said Lt. Col. Frank Gaillard, the E-3 Net-centric Capabilities materiel leader and Block 40/45 program manager.

Another initiative implemented throughout the course of the program is kit installations during programmed depot maintenance.

Personnel from the 566th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Tinker said that installing the modification concurrently with PDM reduces up to eight months of aircraft downtime and allows for maximum aircraft availability.

The squadron was able to sequence their workload so all tasks could be performed on time.

"We started our first low-rate production concurrent PDM/mod at the depot in November 2010," said Jeff Base, the E3/Services Weapons System Support Center Flight chief. "Through process improvements and reducing the learning curve, the modification has realized a 48 percent reduction in hours."

Base also emphasized that advanced planning and stakeholder involvement were critical.

The upgrade provides multi-sensor integration onboard the aircraft, improves data link infrastructure, increases machine-to-machine interaction and compresses the targeting chain timeline.

Users are already seeing advantages.

"The 40/45 upgrade's human-machine interface allows a greater ability for the AWACS to concentrate on bringing order and command decisions to the battlespace," said Capt. James Capra, the 963rd Airborne Air Control Squadron director of operations. "With the upgraded ease of obtaining command and control data, the enhanced focus allows greater war management and will lead to ensuring the JFACC's (Joint Force Air Component Commander) risk level is assured during operations."

One user, a surveillance officer on the E-3, sees the advantage for her role.

"The software is more user-friendly than before and allows operators to focus on executing the mission," said Maj. Amy Chaplin, the 552nd Training Squadron assistant director of operations.

Many players have worked to get this program to this point. According to program officials here, it's been a total team effort.

The overall team included personnel from the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center 's AWACS Division at Hanscom AFB and Tinker AFB, the Air Logistics Center and the 566th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, as part of the Air Force Sustainment Center, both part of Air Force Materiel Command, and the 552nd Air Control Wing from ACC.

"This is truly fantastic collaboration across multiple commands, stakeholders and organizations," said Gaillard. "We are absolutely committed to upgrading the fleet for the warfighter, en route to achieving full operational capability."

FOC is anticipated by fiscal year 2020.