2/16/2011 - FORBES FIELD ANGB, Topeka, Kan. --
The 190th Air Refueling Wing is helping to solve a 50-year-old question: how an aircraft that carries 200,000 pounds of fuel can fly safely into a combat zone?
In the long history of the KC-135, the solution to missile attacks was a luxurious padding of airspace - they didn't enter enemy areas. The most common coutermeasure used by other aircraft were flares, which were, again, incompatible with a tanker carrying thousands of pounds of fuel. Over time, the KC-135 inched closer to combat areas. Today, they regularly fly through them.
The Large Aircraft Infrared Countermeasures system has been in the initial stages of testing at Forbes Field since Nov. 15, 2010. When the National Guard Bureau first received the tasking, the 190th ARW made the short list for host bases. Wing Commander Col. Keith Lang and Vice Commander Col. Ronald Kruger were happy to volunteer.
Lieutenant Col. Michael O'brien helped coordinate the testing and claimed what set the unit apart was experience, proven ability to innovate and the hard work of the Maintenance Squadron. "Basically," concluded O'brien, "our unit has an ability to think into the future. We were a natural choice."
Major Erik Baker also credited the 190th Maintenance Squadron with their ability to work with the people designing the system.
"There was a steep learning curve - not just for our maintenance folks, but for the engineers," Baker added. "I think our Maintenance is definitely unique because those guys think around the problem to find a solution."
The benefit of LAIRCM, as a solution to missile attacks, is that it does not require a redesign of the aircraft. In fact, the assembly may be removable as well as interchangeable. Aircraft could fly lighter without the accessory, and the cost could be shared by all aircraft adapted to the system. For example, once a 190th ARW plane was done using a pod, it could be attached to a Navy plane, or even a commercial Fed-Ex plane that might be flying into a dangerous area.
"It's a capability we need," said O'brien. "These aircraft will still be in our inventory for a long time."
He has been working with engineers, coordinating testing for the past year. Northrop Grumman, Air Mobility Command, Air National Guard Air Force Reserve Test Center, the 406th Testing Center from Edwards Air Force Base, Air Force Material Command from Tinker AFB, the 46th Flight Testing Wing from Eglin AFB, as well as the Navy have been involved in the project. Through early January, the Maintenance Squadron was working with engineers on ground testing and installing the pod. During February, flights will begin. Pilots, crews and planes from the 190th ARW will go to Eglin AFB in the first round of testing.
Missiles will be simulated.
"We'll be fine," assured O'brien. "They're just shooting photons."
While LAIRCM could be considered a complicated system, it was designed as a quick addition. If an aircraft had a few minutes to land and load cargo, for example, the pod could be attached.
"Installation is simple," said David Denton, Director of International Infrared Countermeasures for Northrop Grumman. "It's kind of like getting a flat pack from IKEA."
The comparison is appropriate considering the history of LAIRCM. It was originally designed by companies for commercial use to be quickly and simply removed and installed by delivery companies such as Fed-Ex. The 190th ARW provided the first military aircraft and test facility for the system. During a demonstration in mid-February, several Airmen worked with Navy Lt. Cmdr. Kenneth Thompson, who helped pump the lift, to install the test pod while several engineers watched.
"We've been modifying here for years. The 80s, 90s with fuel-saving programs, Pacer CRAG, automated air refueling, a new liter system," Laub listed as he glanced at the engineers crowding around his maintenance crew as they methodically read over the technical order to install the pod.
"What we're testing is feasibility," Laub continued. "What will happen when a little F-16 pulls up behind this pod?"
Fifteen minutes after they'd started, the pod was attached and, Denton described, all the pilot had to do was turn on the system.
Airman 1st Class Laura Kendrick, who volunteered to help during the demonstration, said she was impressed by the simplicity of the installation.
Thompson, who was attending the demonstration on behalf of the Navy, was interested in adapting the pods to what he hoped to be a flexible and costeffective way to make flights safer.