Tenant units develop, test new RPA assets

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Christian Clausen
  • 432nd Wing/432nd Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
Two units from the 53rd Wing, Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, help operationally test new remotely piloted aircraft upgrades and models at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada.
Detachment 4, the 53rd Test Management Group (TMG), and the 556th Test and Evaluation Squadron, ensure new aircraft models and upgrades meet the vision and requirements given by combatant commanders.

"Whenever the Air Force has a new requirement for the MQ-1 or MQ-9, General Atomics (GA) will develop the requirement and conduct some internal testing of the new hardware or software," said 1st Lt. Daniel, Det 4, 53rd TMG project manager. "
After GA tests it, the planes will come to us for operational testing where the pilots and sensor operators will fly the aircraft to determine if it's operationally suitable. In addition, we also look at the maintenance requirements and whether or not our maintainers can sustain it."

Daniel went on to say the test management squadrons will usually be charged with the planning and reporting of new upgrades and projects. Meanwhile a test and evaluation squadron such as the 556th TES, will execute the test of the modification in an operationally representative environment.

"The overarching purpose of test and evaluation is to ensure systems are operationally effective and suitable," he said. "We help mature system designs, manage risks, and identify or resolve deficiencies.  Combatant commanders communicate their requirements through the acquisition process. The test and evaluation community works to provide timely and accurate information to decision makers so they can determine whether a system should proceed to full-rate production and be used in combat."

Additionally, the test and evaluation units develop tactics, techniques and procedures for successful system employment and provide training to the warfighter.

One of the newest projects for the two units is the MQ-9 Reaper Extended Range (ER), a new variant which carries additional fuel loads and various software upgrades.
"ER was a joint, urgent operational need, and the plan was to deliver 38 aircraft to the Air Force within a slim time frame of about 18 months," Daniel said. "Developmental testers did what they needed, planned for upgrades with external fuel tanks, four blade propellers, and alcohol water injection. We flew it from July to September on approximately 17 sorties and 5 ground tests. In that time frame, we looked at all sorts of scenarios and flight profiles, and in the near future it should be ready for fielding."

The aircraft will now have an increased endurance time due to two external fuel tanks, each holding an extra 1,350 pounds of fuel, allowing more time on target. The aircraft can also substitute a fuel tank for weapons.

Daniel went on to say the biggest benefit of the modifications to the new Reaper ER is a software upgrade which allows Air Combat Command and Air Force Special Operations Command aircrew to be on the same software baseline. This upgrade ensures everyone is on the same page as far as operating the aircraft.

Another important modification is the addition of high definition (HD) in the ground control stations (GCS).

"The GCSs now have HD monitors for day TV and the multi-spectral targeting, this capability gives us a higher resolution picture from about 480 pixels to now 720 pixels," said Staff Sgt. Josh, 556th TES unit project officer. "Operationally this can be helpful because we can make out targets easier, and now, we can tell if someone is carrying a weapon easier."

In addition to the HD upgrades, GCSs now have a new system called video moving target track, which allows the sensor operator to acquire and track a vehicle for kinetic events easier.

"Without the operational testing of the test and evaluation units, problems such as failure against realistic threats and safety or security issues could happen," Daniel said. "Also interoperability issues could affect other combat capabilities, and the systems could be fielded with no support structure."

These issues could be detrimental to the warfighters lives, as well as the Air Force budget. 

"We work to manage the risks with new systems and shield the warfighters from deficiencies before they are fielded to ensure mission success, support combat needs and save the Air Force money by identifying deficiencies sooner rather than later," Daniel said.