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As programs within the Department of Defense attempt to advance and accelerate at breakneck speeds toward what some might feel are science fiction solutions, what is being used to evaluate when the bar has been set too high? <Read More>Many program managers have embraced the need to change and update their portfolio to ensure national dominance for decades to come and are now seeking cutting edge solutions to do so. Terms like AI, drones, predictive maintenance, miniaturized, and agility have been building blocks of design for the past decade and will continue to guide product development into the future.

Within the automated test sets arena, these concepts cannot be more needed, as many of the test sets which are still employed were developed some 40 years ago. But with the multitude of different types of systems which are maintained (analog, digital, RF, etc.), what is needed to ensure advancements don’t inadvertently create test gaps which will leave the system vulnerable into the future?

To look a bit deeper into this, I’ll focus on one specific system: an aircraft’s armament system. An aircraft’s armament system is highly unique to others on the aircraft. All U.S. Air Force armed platforms are equipped with two or more armament or weapons stations. Each one normally has multiple functions so it can be reconfigured to meet different mission sets. For example, on the F-16, station 3 is normally an air-to-ground station capable of being configured to support JDAM, JSOW, GBU’s, AGM-65, AGM-88, TER-9A, SUU-20 and rockets, among other things. However, this same station can also be configured as an air-to-air station capable of supporting AIM-9L/M, AIM-9X and AIM-120. As you can see, these weapons stations are quite complex and contain many different types of signals, some of which are unique to a specific munition.

Another challenge of testing an aircraft’s armament system is while most systems for the aircraft are closed systems, meaning everything needed to execute the test is there, armament is only a closed system while the munition is loaded and only for that particular munition. Many of the sorties which the Air Force flies are training sorties which are limited with no munitions loaded. Under these circumstances, the armament system is now open. One final challenge for the armament system is you only get one shot. In other words, there is only one time a station’s full capability for the munition, which is loaded, will be exercised and this is when a pilot attempts to launch or fire the item. Up to this point, many of the signals are left dormant for obvious reasons.

With all of these conditions to consider, how far can the bar for armament test sets be pushed? Can they be eliminated and allow an aircraft’s built-in-test or health monitoring system to take over and provide results to the maintainers? The answer is technically yes, but at a cost. Armament maintenance and testing would evolve to responding to aircraft faults, reacting each and every sortie. Scheduled electrical testing maintenance would be eliminated, since the testing would be accomplished as part of the mission, thus eliminating the opportunity to prevent failures. Predictive maintenance data would be calculated from limited sample sizes, since most sorties never result in munitions expenditure or even have any munitions loaded. Some systems would go unused and untested for years, in the case of limited use munitions. Inevitably each and every sortie would be at risk for failure.

While advancement is commendable, advancing too far can create a far worse scenario than the original problem it attempted to solve. As the author, Sukant Ratnakar aptly stated, “Our future success is directly proportional to our ability to understand, adopt and integrate new technology into our work.”