Joint team working to prevent friendly fire accidents

Eliminating “friendly fire” accidents is a priority for the American military. A giant leap forward was recently made in this effort due to a very successful joint test flight made at a Naval Air Station Patuxent River flight test range. The Navy, Air Force, and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) joined together to examine a new Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) system known as Mode 5.

The current system used by the U.S. military and NATO allies, known as Mode 4, has several critical challenges that the replacement Mode 5 promises to solve. This upgrade provides the warfighter unprecedented security, performance, increased mission effectiveness and a lower possibility of misidentification of friendly assets.

The Mode 5 IFF system is made up of two key components: an interrogator and a transponder. A ship or aircraft with an interrogator has the ability to send out a secure signal that only transponder-equipped platforms can decode. These platforms can in turn respond, providing a positive identification as a friendly asset. This significantly enhances the warfighter’s information about the battlespace, and decreases the possibility of misidentifying a friendly asset.

The Air Traffic Control & Combat Identification Program Office is managing the acquisition effort for this new Navy capability. Planning for this flight test began approximately three years ago and culminated in October with the successful application of Mode 5 on three separate aircraft as well as two ground stations, according to the Navy Flight Test Lead Ken Senechal. The other team members were Capt Meghann McNiff from the Air Force and Andy Leone from the FAA.

Mr. Senechal described the testing process as “great cooperation between the Air Force and Navy which led to a highly successful flight test that occurred on schedule and accomplished all the objectives on the first try.” It is unusual for Navy program offices to test a product in a joint environment for the very first test, but the opportunity was hard to resist.

The Air Force offered the E-3B Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft, which added an aircraft with an interrogator that the Navy would not have had as part of the testing,” said Mr. Senechal. The Navy provided P-3 Orion and Lear Jet assets, as well as the ground stations at NAS Patuxent River and Webster Field in Maryland.

The team flew three separate flight tests to capture enough test data to get meaningful results, though six flights were scheduled in case of problems like inclement weather. The three flights were so successful and the cooperation among the participants was so strong that all parties agreed to end the test after the third flight, declaring the entire test a success.

This was the first developmental test, but many laboratory tests preceded the flights. In fact, there is an ongoing cooperative effort to test this system in a lab environment with the Italian Ministry of Defense, which has also proven very successful and has provided critical data for the testing office.

In addition, the flight tests provided necessary data concerning azimuth accuracy, range accuracy, resolution, platform identification number support, Combat Identification integration into the fire weapon control systems, timeliness, and compatibility with the civil air traffic control system.

The program plans continued testing under operational conditions next spring; flight tests with the Italian military next summer; technical evaluation in 2006, leading to initial operational capability scheduled for 2007.

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