Adam Wells Blog - We Don’t Need No Test Sets. Wait, Changed Our Minds
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“The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” We’ve probably all heard this quote in some form or another. I believe it applies to creating requirements for a new acquisitions program within the DoD. During my 20 years’ tenure in the United States Air Force, four of which I spent working as the ACC F-16 Armament Manager, I’ve heard and seen plenty of great plans with amazing justification, only to watch them crash and burn in spectacular fashion!

So, what happens when an initial strategy or requirement doesn’t pan out as promised? Years and years of justification are then needed to modify or change the initial plan.

Support equipment is normally one of the last items discussed when pursuing new platforms, and rightfully so, due to the many uncertainties which need to be defined. However, over the last couple of major aerial platform projects a new paradigm shift emerged in the world of self-testing systems. This shift has driven decision makers to eliminate the requirement for electrical test equipment up front, and this makes sense. Since many legacy platforms have basic Built-In-Test (BIT) functions, notifying the pilot of an error or failure during flight, and test sets are expensive and conducting ground testing consumes many needed man hours. It’s reasonable to believe a modern system could conduct a full system test that continuously monitors for faults, AND funds could be diverted to new technologies.

In many ways, new platforms have made a tremendous leap forward in the BIT arena, but limitations still exist. These limitations, over time, have driven each program to readdress maintenance test sets and in many cases, acquire solutions years after platform fielding. Normally, the first solution becomes a “Band-Aid” fix, allowing the field to diagnose and repair some of the known issues. The problem then becomes, that the first solution is seldom the final solution, and Services end up purchasing replacement or additive solutions to try and address the issues.

All the while, as this process is continuing, two things are happening: the first group of individuals are having to collect the data and justify the need, and as the justification process is underway, the Field is having to find ways to maintain mission readiness without the needed support equipment. So, what is the solution?

In reality, this is a difficult problem to solve. As we know, even the F-16 had basic test capabilities, but today, some armament maintainers can use as many as five different test sets on the flightline alone to test the systems they maintain. Part of the problem is the “human factor” and our lack of trust in the aircraft results. Many people like the warm-fuzzy created by a test set and its results, even if the results don’t fully reflect the status of the system being tested. Case in point: the 50/60 test set used for decades to test the LAU-129 missile launcher to test AIM-120 missile functions prior to loading the missile. The problem was that the test set didn’t even have the ability to connect to the AIM-120 umbilical, thus leaving the entire system unchecked. However, because it generated results we could live with, we trusted it, and even demanded its use.

Platform upgrades are another part of the problem. These upgrades usually occur without test solutions, and when they do have a test solution it’s normally a unique, one-off, test set. Another problem is trying to get maximum capability out of modern technology and pushing the boundaries to make a better solution that requires less support equipment. The challenge with each of these situations, is that the new upgrade or new technology is so new, it hasn’t had the time to be fully field-tested for unforeseen issues. As the program ages, new issues may arise that require new solutions, which in many instances, drives the need for a test set.

With all these challenges the solution to the problem might be easier than many think. Common test solutions could be the answer. How? By developing solutions, rather than chasing symptoms. Test set manufacturers like Marvin Test Solutions, have gone to great lengths to ensure commonality across their product portfolio. This strategic vision allows custom solutions to be created at record speeds, at a fraction of the cost of new development and most importantly, with the capability to test an array of issues.

For example, the MTS-235A test set was developed as the F-35 Alternate Mission Equipment (AME) production test set used by factory workers. During development, the engineering team had the foresight to create the MTS-235A in the size/shape of an Intermediate-Level test set, instead of the traditional large rack test set. This decision resulted in a single solution which could be deployed to production floors, Depots, Intermediate-Level backshops or below deck, and if needed, to the flightline or above deck.

These modular designs also allowed our team to create added solutions from issues found in the field. For instance, during our interaction with F-35 maintainers, we discovered a challenge they were having in pneumatically charging the AME tanks. Instead of creating a standalone, custom, expensive solution, our team quickly developed a modular, less expensive solution using the MTS-235A. This forward-looking solution not only addresses the Field’s need to charge items, but adds testing and monitoring capability. The MTS-235A is just one example of how Marvin Test Solutions is prioritizing common aircraft test solutions and eliminating the normal long development lead times for test sets.

The answer to many of these problems seems simple: stop purchasing “custom” and instead, customize a common solution.