Saturday, September 26, 2009

ISR Fast

Defense Tech has a short article online today regarding the MC-12W Liberty series of ISR aircraft (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) which has now flown over 300 combat missions over Iraq. The big news was the short turnaround it took to field the aircraft.

From the time of the first order until it was flying its first combat mission was a mere 8 months.

This is touted as a great deal and trust me folks, it really is. Usually it takes a year or two just to package the RFP from which you use to place the order to industry, then the responses have to be judged by a panel of technologist, program managers and financial or contract specialists. The winner is notified and then the government has to wait out a "protest period" a fixed amount of time for losing bidders to complain and maybe cut themselves in a piece of the action. After all of that the work can start.

8 months is fast even for modifying an existing aircraft for a specific mission, but it is by no means a record.

One of the last projects I worked in the S-3 community was installing an ISR Pod onto that aircraft. I was asked in late January to study the possibility of integrating the existing LANTIRN Pod system onto the S-3. These POD's were excess from the retiring F-14 program. The POD's themselves had plenty of life left in them and were quite a good upgrade for the old War Hoover.

We had an existing IR capability (an old FLIR or Forward Looking InfraRed system) but it was a 1st generation system and only marginally usable over land. Worked great over the ocean where the temperature differential helped make up for its age. But, as you know all of the fighting in Iraq was over land.

The addition of the LANTIRN pod would give us a 3ard generation EO/IR capability and with the S-3's long loiter time it made perfect sense to marry the two. Heck, we could even shoot laser guided missiles using this system as it also had a laser target designator in it. What fun would that be.

So, in late January I make the trip to Jacksonville to test fit equipment and "spit ball" with aircrew about the best place for the controls. Real estate was an issue and it always degraded into what could we live without.

By early February I had two competing designs, one that was elegant and gave up nothing in capability but required a lot of secondary engineering. We would have to split up a control box and mount parts of it in three locations. The other design was a quick and dirty install which required only minor modifications to the new equipment however it meant losing some capability.

I'm not the one that makes the decisions on what goes in, I just figure a way to do the job. And in the middle of the month of February I was told to stop the study phase and to focus my attention on the Quick and Dirty design - ONLY. We needed a real good plan for installation and we needed it now.

The request for manned ISR was going unanswered for the most part and my little part of the Navy wanted to step up to the plate.

At the beginning of March we did just that. Announcing a plan to integrate the LANTIRN pod into the S-3 system and not only that, we would install a video downlink capability so that troops on the ground with an L-band receiver could see the exact video we would have in the aircraft.

And to make things interesting, we would have a flying example in 90 days or less. A tall order especially because we had to borrow an aircraft for that first prototype. And we had to borrow a ground crew to take care of the Jet while we were using it.

As the Engineer for the project I was involved in every aspect of the modification and installation. From deciding on the diameter of holes to drill for a mount to what messages on our Navigation Bus we needed to capture to force the system to initialize. From numbering each wire to getting labels made for control panels and writing the operators manual and generating the data set required for the flight clearance. As a small team I saw it all and did a ton of work to cover the holes in our team. I had a lot of help.

It was a harried project, lots of nail biting and hair pulling. There were personnel conflicts and issues with one contractor or another and we had people coming out of the woodwork that simply wanted a piece of the money that a new project usually has. We had little money for this project and in fact worked out a "Barter and Exchange" agreement to get some of the work done. Yes, you read that right, barter and exchange. A modern kind of Persian Bazaar atmosphere surrounded the Project Office.

But in the end we had that first prototype flying in just 87 days and on day 122 it was over Basra Iraq calling in counter-battery fire for the British troops that were taking mortar fire from insurgents. The War Hoover was finally dealing in death.

This is that first prototype returning from a Combat Mission over Iraq. The LANTIRN POD is the long green tube at the bottom of the weapons pylon.

From the start of the study phase to that first combat flight was just over 6-months. We would modify many more aircraft and improve on the design as well. We were even the launch platform for an improved LANTIRN pod (the "ER" version) that included a 4th generation IR ball and an integral TV system as well.

This is a VS-31 LANTIRN equipped aircraft returning to the USS George Washington. That was my old squadron. (USN Photo)

Now that is a feat!!

BT: Jimmy T sends.


Buck said...

"MC-12 Project Liberty" is the search term that results in the most hits by random googlers at EIP... and it IS a success story, no doubt!

As was your FLIR integration project. Did I ever tell ya that SN1's enlisted job was working on the targeting pod on F-111s? He got to watch the daily "rushes" (i.e., FLIR combat video) during Desert Storm... he was part of the Lakenheath F-111 deployment to Saudi Arabia for the war... which really made his days during that time.

JimmyT said...

Buck, funny what brings traffic. And your SN1's work with the F-111 stuff had to be great fun, they did a lot of work over there and they were one of the few aircraft that had an organic ISR capability. Funny how after that war the US did not go putting that kind of equipment on everything that flew.

BT: Jimmy T sends.