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Testing today’s fighter aircraft weapons digital communication systems is challenging, but when attempted by non-proficient and ill-equipped maintainers the task becomes nearly impossible. Two major challenges will be examined which are being faced by many units operating fighter aircraft with Smart (digital) munitions. <Read More>First, the immense undertaking of training and becoming proficient with armament testing. Second, correctly testing fighter aircraft digital communication systems -1553 serial communications, with outdated testers.

There is a major difference within aircraft maintenance between being trained and becoming proficient. Being trained usually requires the completion of a prescribed course or set of tasks, where an individual has to demonstrate basic system knowledge and understanding of the task. However, becoming proficient can take a person’s whole career in some cases, but at least normally requires a task to be accomplished numerous times after training is complete. Some leaders have asked, “How long does it take to build a 14-year maintainer?” No surprise, it takes 14 years.

To add to the complexity of becoming proficient, most armament maintainers will work on two or more different aircraft in their first 10 years of service. Each new aircraft brings new test equipment and new operating systems to learn and master, essentially starting over each time. Over the course of becoming proficient lie countless hours of trial-and-error testing, and swapping hardware to ultimately obtain Fully Mission Capable (FMC) aircraft. All the while the daily mission continues on and can’t slow down.

One might ask why it is so challenging to transition from being trained to becoming proficient. Today, many of the current munitions flown by the USAF are Smart munitions communicating digitally on the -1553/-1760 buses. However, many fielded aircraft testers, like the 50/60, are lacking digital communication capability, creating a test gap. The tester simply checks the required circuitry for continuity and stray voltage, leaving entire sections of the system untested. For this reason, it is left up to the maintainer to be highly proficient in the theory of operations, and how/when to utilize the provided test equipment. Sometimes this can require the use of five different testers to isolate a single fault. Without highly proficient armament maintainers, testing and troubleshooting fighter aircraft becomes guesswork.

Normally, when a fighter aircraft experiences a failure with the armament system, the first step is to run a simple diagnostic test attempting to duplicate the failure. However, if a tester like the 50/60 cannot duplicate the issue, the maintainer then has to choose to utilize a different type of tester, remove the bomb rack or missile launcher for intermediate level testing, or determine the fault Can Not Duplicate (CND). Each option has its own list of pro and cons, but when a repeat failure occurs during the next mission it will drive management involvement. For this reason, the decision to determine an aircraft failure CND without changes is normally reserved for senior maintenance leaders.

Maintenance organizations around the world have been attempting to solve these issues with ever shrinking budgets and ageing aircraft fleets. Each year, the armament test gap grows due to the introduction of new munitions, while the required test equipment goes unchanged. Fighter aircraft fleets are nearing a test gap that will soon critically affect mission readiness and morale, challenges that won’t be solved simply by throwing parts at them. The solutions may be found in modern support equipment possessing comprehensive test capabilities.