U.S. Air force photo

by Sandra Ugrina

To this day, the United States still relies on some technology development efforts initiated in the 1970s.  The research of that era matured a vast suite of aircraft survivability technologies and capabilities largely in response to the historic events of that time.  Vietnam War theater maps displaying locations of the hundreds of fighter aircraft downed by enemy fire demonstrated the need for, and significance of, survivabil- ity to combat-induced damage as a primary aircraft design element.  Grim statistics of pilots that had to eject over enemy territory, many of whom became prisoners of war, might have been altered if aircraft were hardened enough to allow the pilots to continue to fly for even 5 additional minutes, permitting them to eject over the (then) rescue-friendly South China Sea instead.  The A-10 platform delivered to the fleet in 1975 epitomized the aircraft design philosophy borne from the invaluable lessons learned of that time.  And after nearly 40 years, it is still the most hardened tactical aircraft (at least against small arms, visually directed anti-aircraft guns, and unguided threats).  As shown in Figure 1, the A-10 will retain that notoriety for some time as the vulnerability requirement for the fifth-generation aircraft are written to equate to that of the F-16, another product of the 1970s, albeit designed against other priorities.  As the Deputy Director for Live Fire Test and Evaluation (LFT&E), I ask, even when placed in the appropriate context, what might these data suggest for the future of aircraft survivability and the LFT&E of aircraft systems?LFTE-and-the-Future-Figure1a


Figure 1 Average Vulnerable Areas for a Range of Tactical Aircraft

Military aircraft survivability and, consequently, combat mission effectiveness in current and emerging threat environments are critical for maintaining U.S. air superiority, U.S. national security, and U.S. pilot/copilot/crew safety. LFT&E engineers and scientists across the Services have been testing and evaluating aircraft to assess their survivability capabilities in an effort to reveal and, more importantly, address any deficiencies prior to handing these systems over to our troops to deter, fight, and win wars. The LFT&E community has made significant contributions in the last 4+ decades to protect our troops in combat and to support the Combatant Commanders’ needs in meeting their objectives. While the community should be proud of those achievements, the advancement of technology and continually changing operating environment do not allow us to simply ride on past victories. Gen. Alfred Gray, a former Marine Corps Commandant said, “Like war itself, our approach to warfighting must evolve. If we cease to refine, expand, and improve our profession, we risk being outdated, stagnant, and defeated.” The same holds true for LFT&E: we must evolve, innovate, and adapt to avoid the risk of being outdated and to continue contributing to our important mission.

With the proliferation of advanced and ever-more-lethal conventional threats, as well as the emergence of new nonkinetic threats, such as directed energy and cyber weapons, technology development efforts initiated in the 1970s cannot outpace the more complex and volatile operational environments our forces and coalitions face today. Thus, the LFT&E community, chartered to assess Department of Defense (DoD) major systems’ survivability (and lethality), must adapt and stretch beyond existing capabilities and fields of expertise. We must understand, help prioritize, and advocate for the most effective capabilities to reduce susceptibility and vulnerability and to provide force protection in support of the more challenging U.S. aircraft missions. As a reminder, the ongoing acquisition programs, the Joint Aircraft Survivability Program (JASP), the Joint Technical Coordinating Group for Munition Effectiveness (JTCG/ME), and the Joint Live Fire (JLF) Program comprise the spectrum of venues available to the LFT&E community to help deliver cost-effective, threat intelligence-based improvements to existing systems and next-generation aircraft.

To enable continuous modernization and to respond to Combatant Commanders’ needs in an operationally timely and relevant manner, LFT&E’s efficiency, sense of urgency, and ability to leverage and build on current survivability efforts are critical to improving performance while reducing the time and cost of our acquisition processes. During Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s confirmation hearing, it was mentioned that in 1975, it took roughly the same time (6 years or so) to bring a new automobile, a new commercial aircraft, and a new military aircraft from concept to operation. Today, those timelines have wildly diverged: the automobile is down to 2 years; commercial aircraft are up to about 7 years; and military aircraft are up to 23 years.

This divergence is a DoD-wide concern, but, from our perspective, more coordinated efforts between test engineers and analysts and across the survivability-related functional areas would go a long way to improve this process. It would allow us to more quickly build more robust modeling and simulation tools, freeing up our test resources and efforts to get ahead of the next emerging threat or combination or threats; and it would help us more strategically leverage various aspects of these functional areas to combine their effects and optimize survivability.

The mission of the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) to “discover, innovate, and transition science and technology to ensure dominant strategic land power” is something to contemplate—in particular, the mission of its Survivability/Lethality Analysis Directorate (SLAD) to “provide expert technical advice and solutions that enable U.S. personnel and equipment to survive and function effectively in hostile circum- stances.” ARL/SLAD, which is composed of four major elements, recognized that to execute this mission, it should coordinate and evaluate electronic warfare, cybersecurity, ballistics, and systems of systems to affect the survivability/lethality of major Army systems against the full spectrum of battlefield threats. This approach is broader and far more effective to LFT&E than the traditional sole focus on destructive testing. A similar structure and alignment would benefit all Services to coordinate and optimize all survivability- and safety-related efforts and to ensure dominant U.S. airpower.

The ever-increasing capabilities of our adversaries make the problem of advancing the sciences of aircraft combat survivability compelling, complex, and challenging. While the importance of situational awareness and battlefield intelligence is as old as the first military use of aviation, an operational intelligence-based approach (as shown in Figure 2) that is tailored to specific U.S. missions continues to be as critical to aircraft effectiveness and survivability, but with complexities that are orders of magnitude higher.

Via the JASP, LFT&E can help develop measures to improve crew situational awareness, to counter anti-access/area-denial capabilities, and to counter a range of emerging threats. Inevitably, some aircraft will be drawn into close combat and will be engaged by threat weapons systems. And the results of these engagements could be devastating, as demonstrated by the helicopter combat loss statistics of the most recent wars. However, addressing these measures to detect and counter threats, to absorb the damage more effectively, to avoid aircraft destruction, and to save the crew during an attack or crash requires unconventional and more disciplined scientific approaches.

LFT&E can contribute by responding to the new JASP initiatives to help identify and extract less obvious survivability benefits, some of which focus on investigating the range of technical areas, from signal manipulation, flight control laws, structural dynamics, thermodynamics, and many other perspectives. Enhancing these capabilities will help U.S. aircraft work through the near-peer or second-tier threat environments, mitigating the risk to the crew while expanding the range of possible combat missions.

LFT&E also leverages the JTCG/ME and JLF to respond to the emerging and unconventional types of warfare. For decades, the JTCG/ME has been delivering premier joint munitions effectiveness data and products for the DoD, including the Joint Anti-Air Combat Effectiveness (J-ACE) weaponeering tool. This tool enables the air warfare community—in particular, the Navy Strike Fighter and the Air Force Weapons Schools— to develop tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP) manuals for air superiority applications. The development of this tool is heavily reliant on data collected in acquisition LFT&E and the JLF programs.


Figure 2 Complex Combat Environments U.S. Forces and Coalitions Face Today

To adapt to the complex operational environment, the JTCG/ME has recently applied its expertise in kinetic threats to cyber operations, in coordination with the Air Force Targeting Center. Consequently, the JTCG/ME is now collecting nonkinetic joint weapons effectiveness data for operational Warfighters, analysts, targeteers, and planners to analyze offensive cyber capability effectiveness. The LFT&E community can and should support the development of this process with data characterizing aircraft vulnerability and specific weapon-target pairings, either via the traditional acquisition programs or through the JLF program.

LFT&E has also played a critical role in aircraft survivability evaluation and advancement. As with those in operational testing and evaluation, those of us in LFT&E pride ourselves in getting meaningful results from final, production-representative, full-up system-level testing using operationally realistic weapons. However, our largest service to the Warfighter is, in my view, tied to the inherent ability that LFT&E has to affect system design.

When compared to operational test communities, we get to the susceptibility and vulnerability design and technology issues much sooner through initial, component-, and system-level testing; we are the venue to recognize and affect design early and to set the systems up for a successful full-up system-level test and operational capability. Large doors swing on small hinges, and small or incremental LFT&E technical developments, early in the design, could result in meaningful improvements to systems or requirements, giving our troops the capabilities and the confidence to deter wars, disable adversaries, and secure our nation, and then to return safely back home.


Dr. Sandra Ugrina is the Deputy Director for LFT&E in the Office of the Director, Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E), where she oversees survivability and lethality testing and evaluation of major DoD systems and munition programs. Prior to this position, she served as a research staff member at the Institute for Defense Analyses and as an aircraft systems and weapons staff specialist in the DOT&E office. Dr. Ugrina has also worked as a research associate resident at the National Institute of Aerospace/National Aeronautics and Space Administration Langley Research Center, where she defined and executed interdisciplinary research on the design and analysis of advanced aerospace vehicle concepts and technologies. In addition, she has authored numerous articles, scientific publications, and studies and has served as a college aerospace engineering lecturer and as a consultant for Airbus North America. Dr. Ugrina is a recipient of the National Fellowship for Exceptional Researcher, awarded by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and the American Association for the Advancement in Science. She holds a B.S. in aerospace engineering from the U.S. Naval Academy and a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from the University of Maryland.