Before the warfighter touches it, the Air Force Test Center (AFTC) has been all over it. The Test Center likes to get its hands dirty putting aircraft, avionics, flight control systems, munitions, and weapon systems through their paces. Every earthly environment, combat, and operational scenario is simulated with relentless accuracy. AFTC has a vibrant history and continues to be the center of excellence for flight and ground test. The Center's focus today, and in the future, is summed up in the motto: "Ad Inexplorata … Toward the Unexplored."
Headquartered at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., AFTC leads the Air Force mission of conducting developmental test and evaluation (DT&E) of air, space, and cyber systems to provide timely, objective, and accurate information to decision-makers. Aligned under Air Force Material Command, AFTC is a $31 billion enterprise that employs more than 18,000 military, civilian and contractor personnel. AFTC and its earlier incarnations have tested every aircraft in the U.S. Army Air Corps and the U.S. Air Force's inventory since World War II. AFTC's workforce, civilian, military, and contractor, work together to test and evaluate new flight systems and upgrades to systems already in the inventory for the Air Force, the Department of Defense, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and other government agencies. Typical upgrades to be tested include improvements to radar, weapons-delivery, navigation systems, new wings or engines for aircraft, automated ground collision avoidance software, and a system to give tactical pilots the ability to strike ground targets from low altitudes, both at night and in adverse weather conditions. The test enterprise stretches from the verdant lushness of Arnold Air Force Base, Tennessee, the High Desert of Edwards Air Force Base, California, to down to the white sand beaches of Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.
Arnold Engineering Development Complex, Arnold Air Force Base
Arnold Air Force Base, Tennessee, is the home of the Arnold Engineering Development Complex (AEDC). It operates more than 68 aerodynamic and propulsion wind tunnels, rocket and turbine engine test cells, sled tracks, environmental chambers, centrifuges, arc heaters, ballistic ranges, and other specialized units located in eight states. Facilities can simulate flight conditions from sea level to 300 miles and from subsonic velocities up to Mach 20.
AEDC maintains capabilities that exist nowhere else in the world and truly make it a national asset. The complex has made vital contributions to the development of practically every one of the nation's top priority aerospace programs from the Atlas and Apollo programs, to GPS and the space shuttle and the F-35.
412th Test Wing, Edwards AFB
Edwards AFB and the 412th Test Wing (412 TW) are often viewed as the test enterprise's nucleus. It's here that the Air Force Test Pilot School is located training test pilots, flight-test engineers, and flight-test navigators. The 412 TW plans, conducts, analyzes, and reports on all flight and ground testing of aircraft, weapons systems, software and components, and modeling and simulation for the Air Force. There are three core components for this mission: flying operations, maintenance, and engineering. Edwards is the location of the test and evaluation mission simulator, the Benefield Anechoic Facility (BAF), Ridley Mission Control, and the Integration Facility for Avionics Systems Testing. All these world-class capabilities are essential to the DT&E mission but what stands out, literally as it is the largest facility on the Edwards, is the BAF.
The BAF is the largest anechoic test facility in the world--providing a "virtual open-air range within four walls and ceiling." It can support and handle virtually all Department of Defense aircraft, to test their radio frequency (RF) systems for wide-ranging EMS installed systems test. The BAF's primary purpose is to the test and integration of avionics systems in a secure, controlled, and repeatable electromagnetically controlled free-space environment, using state-of-the-art simulation and stimulation technology that closely duplicates the real combat mission environment. Its highly sophisticated Combat Electromagnetic Environment Simulator can generate virtually any RF threat system, or friendly RF emitter can be generated for free-space radiation (or direct injection) - offering the most cost-effective means of testing and validating the effectiveness of sophisticated electronic warfare and information operations systems against today's threats and emerging threats not yet available at open-air ranges.
Another world-class capability AFTC has at Edwards that it co-manages with Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake and National Training Center, Fort Irwin, is the R-2508 Complex.
The complex is the most effectively integrated and likely the most important multiple service Special Use Airspace in the National Airspace System. R-2508 includes bombing ranges, supersonic corridors, low altitude high-speed maneuvers, radar intercept areas, and refueling areas.
96th Test Wing, Eglin Air Force Base
The 96th Test Wing, Eglin AFB, Florida, is the test and evaluation center for Air Force air-delivered weapons, navigation and guidance systems, Command and Control Systems, and Air Force Special Operations Command systems. One hundred twenty thousand square miles of over-water test ranges provide expert evaluation and validation of systems' performance throughout the design, development, acquisition, and sustainment process to ensure the warfighter has technologically superior, reliable, maintainable, sustainable, and safe systems.
The 96 TW performs DT&E across the complete system life cycle for a wide variety of customers, including Air Force Systems Program Offices, the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL).
It’s here in the panhandle of Florida that the Air Force dispatches its aircraft to get cold or hot at the McKinley Climatic Laboratory, which is actually an AEDC asset. The main chamber is a 55,000 square foot laboratory that is large enough to fit a C-5 Super Galaxy. It’s where temperatures can reach a scorching 165 degrees Fahrenheit or go as low as -65 degrees Fahrenheit.
Developmental Test & Evaluation
DT&E provides engineering data to develop, produce, operate, and sustain a system and its capabilities. The process identifies levels of performance and assists the developer in correcting deficiencies. DT&E provides knowledge of system capabilities and limitations, improving the system performance and optimize use and sustainment in operations. DT&E enables the program manager to learn about constraints (technical or operational) under development to be resolved before production and deployment. DT&E is the process by which a system or component is compared against requirements and specifications through testing. The results are evaluated to assess the progress of design, performance, supportability.
DT&E is an engineering tool used to reduce risk throughout the acquisition cycle. On the other hand, operational test and evaluation (OT&E) is the actual or simulated employment, by typical users, of a system under realistic operational conditions. This function is performed by Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center, Holloman AFB, New Mexico, whose six detachments are located at many AFTC location to ensure close coordination between the DT&E and the OT&E missions.
Current AFTC Programs
AFTC touches every corner of the Air Force and some corners that haven't been discovered. The new Air Force Special Operations helicopter and the T-7A trainer are two high visibility projects currently undergoing DT&E at Edwards. Still, there are other projects though perhaps less well-known, their strategic impact could be more far-reaching.
The HH-60W Jolly Green II, the Air Force’s new combat search and rescue helicopter, is illustrative of the capabilities of the AFTC. The helicopter endured a month-long trial of extremes inside the McKinley Climatic Laboratory, being subjected to temperatures ranging from 120 degrees to -60 degrees Fahrenheit as well as 45 mph winds coupled with heavy rainfall. The goal of these punishing tests was to verify the new aircraft’s sustainability in any operational environment. Checking system performance under the stress of heat, cold, heavy wind, and rain provided real-world data regarding the helicopter’s capability to perform the rescue mission worldwide in various environments. It wasn’t just the helicopter that went to the extreme. The crew was challenged as well as executing preflight checklists and performing tasks to see if the extreme conditions affected any of the avionics, electronics, engine, and other systems.
Earlier this year in the wide-open skies of Edwards, the Gray Wolf prototype cruise missile completed a successful flight test campaign culminating in multiple inflight windmill starts and operation at high altitude. This AFRL science and technology demonstration effort was intended as a proof of concept program for the weapon and developed the original request for proposal. Conducting physical tests, as opposed to laboratory-simulated, provided the Gray Wolf team with invaluable critical data. With a single captive carry flight, the team gleaned more than it would've had in weeks or months of laboratory testing. Modeling and simulation go a long way towards predicting how a system will behave. Still, it will never truly replicate putting the weapon in a wind tunnel or on an aircraft and observing how it behaves in a real-world environment.
The 2018 National Defense Strategy and the 2019 National Defense Appropriations Act mandated the services to develop, test, and implement autonomous and AI systems. The Emerging Technologies Combined Test Force (ET-CTF) is on the leading edge of that mandate. It conducted its first autonomy flight test in February 2020. The three-day flight test demonstrated how the Testing of Autonomy in Complex Environments (TACE) system aboard the Lynx a commercial off-the-shelf small unmanned aircraft system (sUAS), would turn the aircraft around to its safety area when approaching a virtual border and its ability to track a simulated vehicle on the ground without human commands. It's another demonstration of the value of the Center's DT&E mission. The TACE system is test middleware developed by Johns Hopkins University that hybridizes an autonomy/artificial intelligence computer and an aircraft's autopilot. It monitors the commands being sent from the autonomy to the autopilot and then sends back the aircraft state information such as position, speed, and orientation to the autonomy. The TACE payload is not designed for a specific aircraft but can be utilized on different aircraft sizes for flight test.
The test enterprise is always innovating, and no one has exemplified our innovative ethos more than the T-7A Test Team. This team is charged the DT&E mission of the Air Force’s new jet trainer, the T-7A Red Hawk. COVID-19 didn’t slow this team down from helping to bring on line the first new jet trainer since 1959. Instead, it leveraged adversity into innovation, making history when they executed Distributed Test Operations (DTO) in a Mission Control Room at Ridley Mission Control Center at Edwards AFB. The capability permits subject matter experts from AFTC and the primary contractor to provide expertise on high-risk testing from control rooms in two different locations. The addition of a second control room has the added benefit of increasing the number of seats available for any given mission, improving the opportunities to train new engineers. At Edwards, DTO allows engineers within Ridley to view real-time flight tests from remote locations. The most recent test occurred approximately 1,600 miles away in St. Louis, Missouri. Engineers viewed real-time video and view flight telemetry data. Before COVID-19, the team spent up to 50 percent of their time TDY (temporary duty assignment) in St. Louis. This travel burden was a high financial cost to the program, and a strain and test team and their families.
The Arnold Engineering Development Complex 586th Flight Test Squadron at Holloman Air Force Base is conducting a test program to evaluate potential for the platform Kubernetes to be used in operational aircraft. Kubernetes is an “open-source system for automating deployment, scaling and management of containerized applications.” The container system allows applications to be isolated, preventing failure of one piece of software from impacting other software installations. The information passed between containers can also be controlled.
The 586 FLTS implemented Kubernetes onto their T-38 Talon instrumentation system for a flight test scheduled for Sept. 18. A portion of an operational flight program (OFP) software was installed within the containers to demonstrate that Kubernetes could run on the OFP aircraft. The T-38 instrumentation it was installed on is not critical to flight of the aircraft. This allows for testing in a safe and secure environment. Kubernetes provides benefits in both the test and the operational flight environments.
In his first major announcement as Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr., outlined his strategic approach in an eight-page directive titled, “Accelerate Change or Lose.” In the document, he warned, “Air dominance is not an American birthright. Without the U.S. Air Force’s unprecedented control of the air and enabling domains, no other U.S. military mission enjoys full freedom of maneuver.” He stated the service “must accelerate the transition from the force we have to the force required for a future high-end fight.”
There is perhaps nowhere in the Air Force, the Chief of Staff's strategic vision carries more weight than at AFTC. The organization’s distinct and complementary capabilities and expertise provide the Air Force and the nation an advantage over its near-peer adversaries. Undoubtedly, we must accelerate change, empower our airmen to engage in smart risk-taking, partner within and throughout with defense stakeholders to provide timely, objective, and accurate information to decision-makers to improve “forging our nation’s sword and shield.”