By Maj. Damien Pickart , 376th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
/ Published March 23, 2009
MANAS AIR BASE, Kyrgyzstan -- The 376th Air Expeditionary Wing's fleet of KC-135 Stratotankers here delivers more than fuel to the fight in Afghanistan these days as it is revolutionizing the way war is fought by serving as a data network relay high above the battlefield.
At first glance, the cluster of cases mounted in the back of Manas Air Base's 50-year-old KC-135s does not look very revolutionary, but the innovative system and its use on a refueling tanker employs the Roll-On-Beyond-Line-Of-Sight-Enhancement, or ROBE, system.
Developed by Northrop Grumman in 2003, ROBE is a communication system that provides a seamless and secure distribution of information to warfighters, local commanders and higher headquarters. Its introduction to the Afghanistan area of operations has allowed data sharing between the myriad communication systems used by aircraft and ground units. It also overcomes terrain restrictions by facilitating beyond-line-of-sight communications.
"ROBE knocks precious minutes off the "sensor-to-shooter kill chain" and fills in the communication 'shadows' caused by Afghanistan's rugged terrain and deep valleys," said Keith Lareau, the lead Northrop Grumman software engineer for ROBE deployed to Manas AB to help aircrews better understand and appreciate ROBE's benefits.
"Now everyone has greater situational awareness of who's who and what they can bring to the fight," Mr. Lareau said. "The tanker and receiver aircraft see and find each other sooner, which equates to more loiter time over the target. It also allows aircraft with previously incompatible systems, like the F-16 (Fighting Falcon) and A-10 (Thunderbolt II), to communicate and share a variety of data. Most important, the air liaison on the ground can quickly identify who is overhead and which aircraft is carrying the ideal weapon configuration and fuel load to best support the situation he's dealing with."
According to the Northrop Grumman contractor, warfighters might not be enjoying the benefits of ROBE today were it not for the unwavering support of Manas AB and U.S. Air Forces Central command leaders.
"The support from Lt. Gen. Gary North (the AFCENT commander) and Col. Chris Bence (the 376th AEW commander) has been paramount," Mr. Lareau said. "If there were different people in their seats with less enthusiasm for ROBE, it could have met a much different fate. Along with many others serving here, they really understand the importance of how it is helping the fight on the ground."
"ROBE ensures I have the total air picture available as the air component commander and the combined forces air component commander so our Airmen overhead can work with the ground forces successfully," General North said. "To have a synchronized communications capability overhead on our tanker fleet that can reach down into the valleys in Afghanistan is very critical. This is a big difference between where we are in the joint fight today and where we were five or ten years ago."
The first ROBE system was flight tested on a KC-135 just four months after the contract was awarded in 2003. Pleased with the initial results, Air Force officials modified 40 of its 500 KC-135Rs to accommodate ROBE. Each aircraft received an "A-kit" modification that included several antennas and wiring throughout the aircraft, as well as a quick-disconnect panel next to which a portable "B-kit" is mounted. The Air Force purchased 20 "B-kits" consisting of four stackable cases containing multiple secure radios, satellite communications and a computer to power and manage the system.
Despite its initial successes and demonstrations in several military exercises, ROBE was not embraced by everyone, and many of the "B-kits" purchased by the Air Force remained shrink-wrapped for years in storage, quietly waiting for the right opportunity to prove the system's worth.
That opportunity came in June 2008 when the first ROBE-configured KC-135s landed at Manas AB carrying several "B-kits." Following close behind was Ken Albers, the first of several Northrop Grumman contractors deployed to Manas AB to work through technical and procedural hurdles.
"There were a lot of issues to be worked through to convince everyone that ROBE was worth the investment," said Andrina Luczon, a Northrop Grumman software engineer from San Diego deployed to Manas AB for five weeks. "There were software and crypto issues, a lengthy boot-up time, checklists and procedures to develop, and the perception that it didn't work well and wasn't user friendly. Ken worked tirelessly to develop most all the procedures we're using today from scratch and solved a number of problems encountered."
After a month of working with maintainers, communication experts and aircrew to work out the kinks, the first fully functional ROBE KC-135 took off July 13 for a mission over Afghanistan.
ROBE proved its worth soon after, Colonel Bence said.
"During the fourth mission with a ROBE refueler on July 27, our aircrew overheard radio chatter between an F-15 (Eagle) pilot and a joint terminal air controller on the ground," Colonel Bence said. "A forward operating base deep in a valley was under attack and in danger of being overrun. We could tell the F-15 pilot was struggling to identify and strike the targets without causing collateral damage or friendly casualties. We turned on ROBE and within minutes, we knew the system was a success by a comment made by the F-15 pilot. The fighter pilot said, 'I don't know where the picture (target imagery) is coming from, but I got it (the target) now. Thanks.'
"ROBE has proven itself the digital backbone of the communication network over Afghanistan," Colonel Bence added. "It has increased the effective communications footprint in Afghanistan by 200 percent and reduced the "kill chain" timeline by 40 percent. We're receiving frequent feedback that ROBE is saving coalition lives on the ground."
"It's like instant text messaging for war, with pics," said Lt. Col. Pamela Freeland, a KC-135 pilot deployed from the 97th Training Squadron at Altus AFB, Okla. As the chief of standardization and evaluation for the 376th Expeditionary Operations Group, her job is to guide new aircrews to understand and operate the system.
"ROBE is becoming a system we can set and forget," Colonel Freeland said. "The pilots have a knee board computer that displays a common operating picture of all of Afghanistan that gives us a better understanding of what's going on in the battle space we're supporting. Even the boom operators like how easy it is to use the system."
"The checklist was really easy to follow," said Senior Airman Steve Cantu, a KC-135 boom operator deployed from the 92nd Air Refueling Squadron at Fairchild AFB, Wash. The San Antonio native is on his second deployment to Manas AB and flew on one of the first ROBE missions in July 2008.
"I remember going through it the first time in training and then booting it up as we approached Afghanistan," Airman Cantu said. "Everything worked according to plan and I was really comfortable operating the system."
ROBE wasn't always easy to use and some crewmembers saw it as a distraction from their refueling duties, Mr. Lareau said.
"It used to take an expert 45 minutes to boot up," he said. "Now we're training junior Airmen to do it in just a few minutes a day or two after they arrive at Manas and they are successfully running the system on a combat mission hours later."
During her five-week deployment, Ms. Luczon is determined to put herself out of business and train Airmen to do the job.
"We're constantly refining and simplifying the procedures so we don't lose the good will of those who have come to see the ROBE and refueling missions as mutually enhancing," Ms. Luczon said. "As excited as we are to put ourselves out of work, it's been great for a software engineer like me to get out of the cubicle and see how I'm making a difference saving lives in combat."
Eight months after the first ROBE mission, a growing cadre of aircrew at Manas AB is recognizing the benefits ROBE brings to the fight. With a near 90 percent mission effective rate, the system continues to make a tangible impact on the ground and in the sky over Afghanistan.
"Several A-10 pilots rotating home passed through here recently and said that when they were engaged in close-air-support missions, the only target information they could get was coming from ROBE," said Maj. Paul Skipworth, a KC-135 pilot from Fairchild AFB's 93rd ARS, deployed to Manas as the 22nd Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron director of operations. "Fueling the fight is still our primary mission, but seeing the demand for the data we now deliver is very telling."