Selfridge to Serve as Test Site for Air Force Prototype

  • Published
  • By TSgt. Dan Heaton
  • 127th Wing Public Affairs
The Air National Guard has begun installing a new prototype missile countermeasure device on aircraft at Selfridge Air National Guard Base. If tests on the prototype conclude favorably, as expected, the device could mean safer travels for KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft and additional job security for maintenance personnel at the base.

Working in conjunction with the KC-135 Systems Project Office (SPO) at Tinker Air Force Base, aircraft maintenance personnel at Selfridge began work in mid-January preparing a single KC-135 aircraft at the base for a prototype of the LAIRCM - large aircraft infrared countermeasure - system. After several weeks of prep work on the aircraft, the LAIRCM pod, known as The Guardian, will be added to the aircraft and a series of tests will be conducted with the aircraft at an Air Force test range in another state. An exact timeline on the testing project has not been publicly released, but the prototype testing is expected to conclude by late spring or early summer.

"This testing mission is important not only to the Air Force, but to our Army, Navy, Marine Corps and allied partners as well," said Col. Michael Thomas, 127th Wing commander and a KC-135 pilot at Selfridge. "The work being done by our Airmen on this project will have a direct impact on the future safety of not only aircraft, but the Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors and Marines aboard those aircraft."

The LAIRCM is specifically designed to defeat a portable, man-carried surface-to-air missile. While such missiles don't pose much threat when the KC-135 is refueling another aircraft at a high altitude, the tanker can be susceptible to such weapons - favored by insurgent groups because of their relative low cost and ease to operate - while taking off and landing, "something we do in places that may or may not be safe around the world every day," said Raymond Berhalter, an engineer with the SPO at Tinker who is at Selfridge to assist with the initial phases of the work. Safety in a hostile environment is of particular concern when KC-135s perform one of their key alternate missions - serving as an aeromedical transportation system to move injured military personnel from remote bases to larger hospitals.

"We volunteered to serve as a test site for this project," said Col. David Brooks, commander, 127th Air Refueling Group, a component of the 127th Wing at Selfridge. "First, our maintainers have the skills and abilities necessary to work on this type of project. Second, when anyone in the Air Force thinks about tankers, we want them to think about Selfridge first."

Initial testing of the LAIRCM began with the 190th Air Refueling Wing in Kansas in 2010. After making adjustments from that testing, a prototype of the system was designed by Northrop-Grumman for the Selfridge tests.

The LAIRCM is a pod that can be attached to the external skin of the aircraft. The receiving aircraft has to be modified to have a receiving plate, an additional antennae and wiring inside the aircraft. Berhalter said that in an operational setting, once the aircraft is prepped to be able to accommodate the LAIRCM pod, the pod would only be added to the aircraft - a procedure that only takes a few moments for a trained maintenance crew - on specific missions. It generally would not be added to the KC-135 on domestic training missions, as an example. Berhalter said the system was designed to be detachable from the aircraft to save on costs as a single LAIRCM pod could be attached and detached to multiple aircraft, as mission requirements change. The Air Force has not finalized plans on how many of the KC-135s in the fleet would be equipped with the necessary equipment to receive a pod. The Air Force has 167 KC-135s in the active duty fleet, 180 with the Air National Guard and 67 with the Air Force Reserve.

The LAIRCM is designed to continuously scan for any threats to the aircraft. If a missile is detected, it jams the incoming missile's guidance system using a laser beam. The system does not require the aircraft pilot or another aircrew member to take action to eliminate a potential threat.

"It provides a significant layer of protection to the aircraft," Berhalter said.

The Air National Guard's LAIRCM test is taking place at the same time as a similiar prototype is being tested with a U.S. Navy C-40 Clipper cargo aircraft. The two services are exchanging information to better improve the system, Berhalter said.

Selection of the air refueling group at Selfridge to work on the prototype project is a direct result of a certain mind-set found in the maintenance crew in the group, Brooks said.

"When some one says, 'we can't do because...,' we've taken the approach of 'what can we do, what steps can we take, how can we work smarter to get this project done,'" he said.

The unit's mix of full-time aircraft maintainers and traditional, one-weekend-a-month Guardsmen helps bring new eyes and new ideas to a project, said Chief Master Sgt. Henry Ryan, superintendent of the 191st Maintenance Squadron.

"A lot of our traditional members are engineers, are electricians in their civilian jobs," Ryan said. "Sometimes that can spark an idea. Our full-time people are on the same aircraft all the time, so they get to know an aircraft and that can spark an idea. It's up to leadership then to hear those ideas and be open to them, not just look for ways to say 'no.'"

Earlier this month, roughly 60 or so maintenance Airmen from the 127th Air Refueling Group shared in the receipt of the Wing Commander's Trophy for Excellence in 2012 for dramatically reducing the time an aircraft spends out of commission in a maintenance hangar.

"One thing leads to another," Ryan said. "You're doing good work on bringing your ISO (maintenance) times down and now you have the opportunity to be considered for a new, high-profile project to be brought on to the base."

In other news related to the KC-135 at Selfridge, design work is slated to begin later this year on a new $30 million jet fuel storage and delivery system on the base. The new fuel system is expected to be operational by 2018. While the fuel system will facilitate refueling operations with all aircraft on the base, it will be of primary benefit to the air refueling group, as KC-135s routinely take on several thousand gallons of fuel prior to a mission.