Turning concepts into reality: Innovating a 50-year-old weapon system through test and evaluation

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Anthony Santino
  • 576th Flight Test Squadron

In 2020, when Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. challenged Air Force leaders to “accelerate change or lose,” he wasn’t speaking by exception or targeting certain communities. The message was not directed at specific offices known for their innovative approach, like the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office or their organic software development cell, Kessel Run.

He was addressing Airmen at every level. It was a reminder that innovation isn’t a phase, nor is it finite. It can be applied by every team, in every community, at all times; innovation is a culture, not a commodity.

The message was loud and clear to everyone in the USAF, but it especially resonated with members of the 576th Flight Test Squadron, a tenant unit hosted at Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif. This squadron is an elite team of nearly 200 officers, enlisted, civilians, and contractors solely responsible for intercontinental ballistic missile operational test and evaluation. The Airmen of the 576th are the architects behind Minuteman III test launches, charged with vetting new tactics and equipment before they are operationally deployed.

Why did this squadron take special note of Brown’s message?

The Minuteman III was first fielded in 1970. The system has matured for more than 50 years, so it is easy to assume the best equipment and most efficient procedures are in use already. Airmen in the ICBM enterprise know that is not the case. That is why the men and women of the 576th FLTS, alongside mission partners, continue to validate Minuteman III accuracy and reliability, and bring innovative upgrades through rigorous testing to maximize the capability of the weapon system.

Putting it to the test

All changes begin as an idea. In the case of Minuteman III, since the system is already fielded, an Air Force Form 1067, Modification Proposal, is usually the first step in translating an idea into a formal request for assessment and possible modification.

1067s drive improvements through temporary or permanent material solutions. They can implement new requirements or drive permanent modifications to improve effectiveness, survivability, and/or cost-effectiveness. Most proposals are minor: a software fix or small improvements to technical data. But 1067s can also spark major hardware upgrades, like replacing the Payload Transporter fleet with newly designed tractors and trailers.

“The process is easy. Any Airmen can submit a 1067,” said Chief Master Sgt. Ron McLaughlin, the 576th FLTS senior enlisted leader. “They simply work with their supervisor and local quality assurance section to codify their idea or suggestion.”

The 1067s route from tactical units to the appropriate major command and special program office. In the case of Minuteman III, Air Force Global Strike Command collects and coordinates 1067s with the Minuteman III Systems Directorate at the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center. From there, subject-matter experts prioritize and select 1067s for implementation. Those 1067s may eventually become part of operational tests built and led by the 576th FLTS. If a 1067 calls for replacing or upgrading equipment, a completely separate test execution may be directed to verify that the upgrade is suitable and effective for use with the system.

Although submitting 1067s is simple in practice, “we can improve by giving Airmen feedback throughout the process, so they know their voice is heard and they’re encouraged to submit again,” McLaughlin added. “The most important thing is improving awareness of this process and encouraging Airmen to submit their suggestions. They’re the ones who use the system every day; they know it best, they have the best ideas, and they’re the ones who are going to innovate.”

From TIP to test

1067s are ideal for hardware and software improvements to a fielded system, but when it comes to non-material solutions and improvements to usability, Airmen turn to tactical doctrine. Tactics Improvement Proposals are written in response to tactical problems where a modification to the system might not be the best solution, or when developing procedures for systems in their early phases of development.

“TIPs are a lot like 1067s,” said Maj. Jeremy “CRIP” Wyatt, the senior weapons officer at the 576th FLTS. “They apply an elegant solution through written or practiced techniques. This means maximizing the weapon system’s capability to save resources and enhance lethality. We want maximum effect with minimum input.”

Just like 1067s, “TIPs can be produced by anyone at any time,” said Wyatt. “Airmen should work with their squadron’s weapons officer to shepherd their proposal to the Tactics Review Board.”

That’s where tactics proposals are reviewed and selected for testing. The 576th FLTS works closely with Air Force Global Strike Command to select TIPs to test.

Selected TIPs are prioritized on the Test Project Order and formally scheduled on the five-year ICBM Test Forecast. Then, the 576th FLTS designs a Tactics Test Plan and identifies organizations required to support testing. TIP testing is often integrated into existing Simulated Electronic Launch-Minuteman tests or recurring software test events. The final product is a published tactic, technique or procedure, TTP, which can be built into the day-to-day operation of the weapon system.

“Sometimes, the output is as simple as saying ‘yes, these tactics work,’” said Capt. Maurice “TONKA” LeFever, a weapons officer and chief of weapons and tactics at the 576th FLTS. “But the TTP could also involve rewriting an entire procedure.”

Asked how we can improve the tactics-improvement process, LeFever explained that, “Tactics development may feel like a burden amid day-to-day requirements. We could collectively improve our process if TIP development becomes more familiar … part of our culture. We’re never finished improving this system.”

Turning concepts into reality

In Brown’s “Innovation Letter to Airmen,” written Sept. 17, 2021, he writes, “An idea that is never presented is worse than an idea that does not work ... Innovation depends on both creative individuals and supportive organizations to turn concepts into reality.”

With that, it’s easy to see why the Airmen of the 576th FLTS have been especially inspired by Brown’s emphasis on innovation. It is part of their mission. These Airmen are turning creative concepts from experts across the ICBM enterprise into reality every day.

As a result, they are enhancing the reliability and effectiveness of the Minuteman III, one of our nation’s oldest – but always ready – weapon systems.