According to the recently-released Director of Operational Test and Evaluation annual report for 2017, the US Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center (AFOTEC) began Initial Operational Test and Evaluation (IOT&E) of the F-22A Raptor’s new Increment 3.2B upgrade in September 2017.
Increment 3.2B is a Major Defense Acquisition Program and provides hardware and software upgrades to fully integrate AIM-120D AMRAAM and AIM-9X Sidewinder missiles onto the USAF’s premier fighter. The protracted timescales of Increment 3.2B led to the USAF opting initially for a ‘rudimentary’ capability with AIM-120D and AIM-9X ahead of the full 3.2B — the AIM-120D was added first in Update 4, with the AIM-9X added in Update 5.
Development testing delays with 3.2B led to the USAF warning that it wouldn’t be completed as planned by the end of April 2017, thus delaying IOT&E, which is required to be completed successfully in order to authorize a Full‑Rate Production decision, currently scheduled to occur in July 2018. However, the report says IOT&E did start in September 2017.
The report then says: ‘F‑22A Increment 3.2B IOT&E adequacy requires the ability to conduct mission‑level, open‑air flight testing against specific adversary air capabilities. As of the start of IOT&E, the Air Force was not able to provide the means to conduct open‑air testing on the Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR) using all of the appropriate air assets required by the IOT&E test plan.’
Additionally, it says: ‘The NTTR Air‑to‑Air Range Infrastructure (AARI) instrumentation system provides an automated means for real‑time battle shaping crucial to complex F‑22A open‑air operational flight testing through shooter‑to‑target accredited weapons fly‑out simulations. As of September 2017, the Air Force had not demonstrated AARI readiness to support FY17‑18 Increment 3.2B IOT&E and will not be able to accredit the system due to lack of end‑to‑end verification of all functions and detailed validation of weapons fly‑out models.’
‘Without an accredited AARI system, the Air Force lacks the means of resolving operational mission‑level measures for F‑22A Increment 3.2B IOT&E in open‑air flight testing, and places pending FY18 F‑35 IOT&E open‑air NTTR testing in jeopardy since a fully functional AARI is required for F‑35 IOT&E.’
In short, the Nellis range complex, formally known as the NTTR, has a problem. The report clearly states that as of the start of Increment 3.2B IOT&E in September 2017, the USAF ‘was not able to provide the means to conduct open‑air testing on the NTTR using all of the appropriate air assets required by the IOT&E plan. IOT&E open‑air flight test execution will be inadequate unless the Air Force can provide the required assets for testing.’
A national asset
The NTTR is vitally important to the US military — it regularly supports complex test and evaluation by the Nellis-resident 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron. It’s the reason this important unit is located here. Indeed, the original IOT&E for the F-22 was flown on the NTTR by a dedicated test team from Edwards AFB. ‘We largely developed the tactics through trial and error with access to the best threat replication tools available on the Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR),’ one pilot told Combat Aircraft last year.
Increment 3.2B is fundamental to F-22 capabilities, and clearly it places huge demands on the NTTR infrastructure and assets to test it to the limits and expose any weaknesses. Seemingly, the Nellis AARI (which is regarded as being world-leading) has not been able to move with the times and adequately instrument a modern weapon such as the AIM-120D, although such testing must have been completed for the F-15C, which has already fielded the missile.
Moreover, the air force is unable to provide the appropriate air assets to support the testing. Air assets points to ‘Red Air’ aggressors. Nellis is home to the 64th Aggressor Squadron (AGRS) F-16s, and recently the 18th AGRS from Eielson AFB, Alaska, has deployed its F-16s here. Presumably to support both the resident Weapons School and operational testing on the NTTR. In addition, Draken International flies contracted ‘Red Air’ support at Nellis with A-4 Skyhawks and L-159 ‘Honey Badgers’. So, there appears to be sufficient volume of ‘bad guys’ at Nellis for the F-22 testing.
The reference to a lack of ‘specific adversary air capabilities’ for Increment 3.2B IOT&E suggests that the USAF needs to evaluate the latest Raptor upgrade against a clear and very specific threat in a live flying scenario — which points to specialist aggressor ‘assets’.
The Groom Lake-based Air Force Test Center (AFTC) Det 3 ‘Red Hats’ remains responsible for test and evaluation of foreign materiel, and Detachment 3, 53rd Test and Evaluation Group (TEG) ‘Red Eagles’ is tasked with high-end aggressor training.
It was widely reported last year that a crash on the NTTR claimed the life of Lt Col Eric ‘Doc’ Schultz, a highly-experienced and well respected US Air Force test pilot, on September 5. Lt Col Schultz’ tragic death was shrouded in a veil of secrecy, which caught the attention of the aviation world and it appears that he was the Commanding Officer of ‘Red Hats’ when he was killed. Subsequent, unverified, reports suggest that Schultz was flying a Su-27 ‘Flanker’ derivative when he was killed.
The ‘Red Hats’ flies AFMC-owned ‘assets’ under the so-called Foreign Material Exploitation (FME) program. These ‘assets’ (including a Su-27P photographed over the NTTR in 2016) are classified and they are shrouded in secrecy, despite a number of sightings. Could it be that Lt Col Schultz’ accident has prompted the USAF to halt the flying of such specialist ‘assets’, pending formal investigation into the crash? This could explain the details in the Operational Test report.
If this is the case, it underlines the importance the USAF places on such aircraft to validate new capabilities. It might also explain why F-35 IOT&E has been pushed back to the end of 2018. If there was ever a time the USAF wanted to test air-to-air vulnerabilities, it would be in F-35 engagements against ‘specific adversary air capabilities’ in a realistic environment.
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