When BAE Systems partnered with the U.S. Air Force to transition its advanced Compass Call Electronic Warfare system from an aging aircraft into a more modern platform, the project team took a bold and unprecedented approach. They decided to use a real-life aircraft fuselage to serve as the System Integration Lab, or SIL. Typically necessary modifications to an aircraft are discovered in the field. But for the very first time, the BAE Systems team is simulating battlefield scenarios and developing solutions within the confines of a literal aircraft lab planted safely on the ground.
“The interior dimensions of the SIL fuselage are the same as the future platform,” said Rob Doherty, director of Compass Call. “It is built to scale, allowing our experts to solve problems in the lab before they get to the field. It also allows the customer to visualize what the capability is going to look like for real-time adjustments. It’s unusual in a program like this, to have something so tangible this early in a program.”
Compass Call is a modified aircraft that employs a broad range of Electronic Warfare engagement techniques to dominate the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS). The advanced mission system manipulates adversarial communications, sensors, networks, and collaboration, while ensuring that US and Allied Forces possess full usage of and access to the EMS.
Doherty and his team are working to convert the advanced Compass Call mission system from the EC-130H aircraft to the EC-37B aircraft, a special-mission Gulfstream G550 that meets current Air Force requirements. This “cross-deck” initiative is intended to significantly improve mission effectiveness by enabling the Air Force to disrupt future enemy command and control capabilities in hostile environments more effectively.
The goal of a SIL is to eliminate challenges early in the process in order to get the new capability into the hands of the warfighter quickly and in a cost effective manner.
An actual fuselage scaled to requirements for custom testing allows for a seamless integration of the prime mission equipment hardware and software. This dramatically reduces risk, well before the program begins developmental and operational flight testing.
Members of the BAE Systems team flew out to an aircraft boneyard in Mojave, California, to find a suitable aircraft. They used a crane to strap it to a trailer for the long haul across the country to New Hampshire.
“The first thing was to find a dimensionally similar fuselage,” said Jeff Davis, program manager of Compass Call System Engineering Integration and Test at BAE Systems. Once back east, the fuselage was stripped down to the bare aluminum skin. A team also completed modification work, adjusting the dimensions of the fuselage to match the Gulfstream G550. The fabrication work included adding an additional window on both sides and an extra rib to the fuselage.
“By the time they were done, we had a SIL structure that was within a quarter inch of G550 dimensions,” said Davis.
From there it was ready for installation. A wall at the company’s facility had to be knocked down so the SIL could be wheeled in to its newly-configured home.
“There’s quite a bit of infrastructure that goes into the space that it’s in – cabling, cooling, power and air conditioning,” said Doherty. “There were a number of building modifications made to accommodate these items.”