Ready to roll: Production miliestone revs up AWACS upgrades

  • Published
  • By John Parker
  • Tinker Public Affairs
The 552nd Air Control Wing recently received its first full-rate production E-3G AWACS aircraft, a milestone marking the start of faster upgrades for the rest of the surveillance and battle management fleet.

E-3 Program Manager Thomas Ramsey with the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center said the turning point means Tinker AFB's 566th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron can now modify up to five or more aircraft a year.  The Air Force currently fields 31 "Sentry" planes.

"It will allow us to retrofit the 552nd's fleet as fast as money and schedules allow," Mr. Ramsey said. "And the faster that we can get the capability out there, the better it is for the warfighter."

On April 8, tail number 76-1604 became the seventh Airborne Warning and Control System plane retrofitted with the latest Block 40/45 technology upgrades. Last June, the 566th AMXS delivered the last of six low-rate production aircraft with the advanced modifications.

The Block 40/45 modification is the most comprehensive in the 38-year history of the U.S. E-3 weapon system. The cockpit-to-cabin changes improve communications, computer processing power, threat tracking and other capabilities. The upgrades replace some hardware and software that dates to the 1970s.

"Block 40/45 provides solutions for the current systems' operational and technological obsolescence, rapidly decreasing reliability, maintainability, supportability and inability to integrate future technologies and growth opportunities," said Don Gricol, AWACS Triage Team member.

The AWACS Modification-Programmed Depot Maintenance Integration Team under the AFLCMC partnered with the 566th AMXS and the Boeing Co. to upgrade the remaining aircraft as they come due for normal PDM, said Deputy Chief Karen Burrell, HBS Modification-PDM Integration.

The rest of the Air Force E-3s are slated for the upgrades through 2020 at the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Complex.

Ms. Burrell said combining each aircraft's depot maintenance with the modification upgrades "reduces up to eight months of aircraft downtime, thus returning the jet back to the 552nd ACW warfighter to maximize aircraft availability. As a combined AWACS Mod Integration and 566th AMXS Production Team, we are proud to share in delivering this critical capability to our 552nd ACW customer for in-theater use."

Ms. Burrell said the older Block 30/35 weapon system in use on most of the fleet today was designed for a 15-year service life, but is now over 30 years old.

The new modifications automate previously manual functions and improve the amount of data that E-3 aircrews can receive and share with allied forces on missions such as counter drug surveillance. Boeing Design engineers drew on commercial, off-the-shelf technology for the modifications, greatly reducing costs, Ms. Burrell said.

While upgrading the fleet is the program's primary mission, Mr. Ramsey said the challenge of developing and managing such a large modification program at Tinker also led to a bonus: a management blueprint for reducing snags in future aircraft retrofitting projects.

"What we did to attack those problems was to have the E-3 program office, the depot and Boeing have open, transparent, recurring meetings to identify all of the seams, identify all of the roles and responsibilities, and address them before we started the mod so that we could make sure that they didn't come up in the middle of the mod," Mr. Ramsey said.

"The process worked so well that we developed a standard process guide for other major mods that any weapon system can use if they're doing big mods at the OC-ALC," he added. "The Air Force Sustainment Center was particularly and intimately involved in the process."

Col. Jay Bickley, 552nd ACW commander, said the E-3Gs have been flown in counterdrug and other missions, but not in a combat theater. He said he's eager for three more 40/45 planes scheduled to enter the fleet by the end of summer.

"The partnership between the depot, the OC-ALC, the AFSC and our wing has just been phenomenal," the colonel said. "Getting to this milestone is really a tribute to all the hardworking men and women over in the depot, our Boeing partnership and the men and women of the 552nd.  I think those folks take a lot of pride in the aircraft and seeing the modification come to fruition."