Trial by Fire – Actionable data to power the Nation’s defense

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Lane Haubelt
  • Aeropropulsion Test Branch

Nearly four decades ago, the Aeropropulsion Systems Test Facility (ASTF), the largest and most capable turbine engine test facility in the nation was dedicated. Faced with the Soviet Union’s growing threat of advanced military capability in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the nation turned to AEDC to develop and test the advanced propulsion systems necessary to maintain our competitive edge. That test facility is a testament to the far-sighted visionaries who recognized that the nation’s aerospace advantage rested upon AEDC’s ability to provide actionable data on the propulsion systems vital to countering the Soviet threat.

For the first time in thirty years, the nation’s aerospace edge and global reach is again directly challenged by emerging peer competitors. This fact represents a seismic shift in the familiar global order of the 1990s and the early 2000s and is echoed at the highest levels of our government and military establishment. As highlighted by the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS), the United States no longer enjoys “uncontested and dominant superiority in every operating domain…every domain is contested.” The “reemergence of long-term, strategic competition” represents the “central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security.” Our adversaries are fielding weapons, powered by advanced engine systems, to directly challenge the United States’ position as the clear international leader in military aircraft propulsion.

As peer competitors work diligently to surpass our technological advantage, our nation seeks to field weapon systems powered by the most advanced and complex propulsion systems the world has ever seen. The nation entrusts the Aeropropulsion Test Branch with the capability, through our critical infrastructure and personnel, to prove the performance of these propulsion systems. Success in this endeavor is only realized through focused priorities, clarity in organization, and transparency to our workforce and our national defense partners.

According to the AEDC Strategy 2020, our three priorities are to: pursue mission excellence, invest in our people, and improve and sustain the complex. At the Aeropropulsion Test Branch, the first priority defines our focus. Our mission is to ensure the nation’s aerospace dominance by providing decision makers actionable data, through safe, efficient and unbiased test and evaluation on the performance of the world’s most advanced propulsion systems. Every action we take each day, must directly support that mission.

Secondly, accomplishing our mission depends upon the men and women across the Aeropropulsion mission area. Our facilities are impressive in size and potential, but without a qualified and empowered team, it is just a pile of metal and concrete, a monument to the progress of the past. Focused efforts on technical training and professional development are paramount and help empower the workforce to own the mission. It is the test and plant operations engineers executing a sixteen-hour developmental engine test late on Friday night, and the test analyst interpreting hours of non-contact stress measurement data on a new fan blade design, and the craftsman conducting 0430 pre-ops on a critical hydraulic system in freezing temperatures who own the mission and represent the linchpin to our capability.

Third, accomplishing our mission depends upon available and capable infrastructure. Just as the ASTF was developed and commissioned at the height of the last great power competition, focused and effective investment and sustainment activities are essential in today’s environment. These tasks, such as the monumental A/B-plant exhaust motor replacement and the daily preventative and reactive maintenance across the capability, are fundamental to mission effectiveness today and the future.

Mission success at AEDC also requires clarity in organization. The demands of the 2018 NDS place increased responsibility and mission area growth on the Aeropropulsion team. Rising test demand, coupled with an increase in test system complexity requires a clear alignment of roles, responsibility, authority and organizational structure. According to Gen. David Goldfein, the U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff, the squadron represents the “beating heart of the United States Air Force; our most essential team.” Alignment to support and empower the squadron-level mission unit is vital to AEDC’s success.

Finally, mission success at AEDC requires transparency at every level. At the Aeropropulsion Test Branch, transparency relies on open and objective communication. Leadership cannot expect to empower the workforce without first providing an environment which encourages clear two-way communication. In like manner, an effective relationship with our national defense partners requires constant and deep communication.

The consequence of failing to meet AEDC’s mission is sobering. According to the 2018 NDS, without sustained focus on modernizing our military, “we will rapidly lose our military advantage, resulting in a Joint Force that has legacy systems irrelevant to the defense of our people.” The nation depends on the Aeropropulsion Test Branch to equip the warfighter with the propulsion systems needed to deter and defeat our adversaries. The geopolitical and technological challenges presented by today’s environment demand we ensure the nation’s weapon systems provide the range and payload necessary to defend our national interests.

The men and women of the Aeropropulsion team are entrusted with a mission critical to the continued preeminence of the United States. By its very nature, this mission presents challenges. As with the development and commissioning of the ASTF several decades ago, the Aeropropulsion team rises to meet the call by remaining true to our priorities, employing clarity in organization, and being transparent with our workforce and national defense partners. I am excited to continue serving alongside this amazing team in support of our Nation’s call.