The original F-16 fighter jet was built at a time when the world was in flux. It was the early 1970’s and the US Air Force had realized during the Vietnam conflict that their fleet wasn’t built for modern aerial warfare. The F-4 for example was struggling as a dogfighter because its attack profile was based on missiles.
“We needed to have something that could do close in combat,” says Elileen Bjorkman, a retired US Air Force officer and author. “We realized that we really do still need guns and short-range missiles.”
“They came up with the idea to build a day fighter,” she says. “It would be very basic. You’d be able to have lots of them so that we would be able to go up against the hordes of what the Soviet Union was going to be bringing to bear.”
That low-cost, limited use jet was the F-16, and despite its humble beginnings it has become one of the most popular fighter jets in the world. More than 4,600 of them have been built, and 26 different countries include them as part of their fleet.
“It started out with very little capability, but then as time went on and people started to realize that this was a pretty good airplane, actually we could do a lot more with it. It just started to evolve,” says Bjorkman.
That evolution process continues today.
Greece is in the midst of an upgrade program right now. The Hellenic Air Force is increasing the capabilities of eighty-four F-16’s, turning them into “Vipers.” This essentially brings the Block 52 aircraft up to the equivalent of a Block 72 configuration.
The logistics for such a project are, to put it mildly, daunting. The Viper upgrades extend to almost every aspect of the plane including the avionics package, radar capabilities, and cockpit display system, all connected by a high-speed data network. The additions also include an advanced weapons package. It’s a project where the details threaten to overwhelm the big picture.
The solution to that potential chaos is a software package by ILIAS Solutions.
“ILIAS is central to all this,” explains Harry Barmentloo, of ILIAS Solutions. “It’s like a big blender bringing all the different variables together, being IT systems, databases, all kinds of technical instructions, parts and planning cards. The big challenge is to organize it all and be in control of the full mod program. To do that you need to orchestrate all the different elements.”
The planning started in 2019. That included organizing the kick off with the project team consisting of Lockheed Martin (the project leaders), ILIAS Solutions and the Hellenic Aerospace Industry (HAI). It also means preparing to handle a huge amount of data; much of it being Hellenic Air Force operational data. That requires powerful and secure tools.
“We use a secured cloud environment, where according to the Lockheed security policies, we can hold the development, testing, and production activities, and keep track of the progress of the mod execution,” says Barmentloo. “We also keep track of the different shipments coming in from both the commercial supply chain, and through Foreign Military Sales.”
Patrick Conlan is the Lockheed Martin Depot Operations Manager for the Greece Viper Upgrade Program. He says they decided to use ILIAS as their management tool because the scope of the project was too big for any internal system.
“We deliver large kits with huge builds and materials, but mapping each one of those material requirements to a specific production need date, is something that has eluded us in the past,” he says. “We are dealing with both serialized and non-serialized items being delivered. We also have to track multiple items that are coming and going from Hellenic Air Force for the engine, the seat, the canopy, and the gun. All that needs to be managed and controlled.”
“And of course, what this all leads to is the ability to measure our cost and schedule performance; what we refer to as earned value management, or EVM. And through all this, we hope to capture management visibility and transparency, because as opposed to siloed reports and siloed systems, all of the information is flowing out of one system. We all get to speak with one truth.”
The project has served as a proving ground for ILIAS’s latest product: ILIAS Guide.
“What ILIAS Guide is doing for us is it turns each technician into a sensor,” says Conlan. “Each technician can measure the hours worked, start, stop times, also raise findings from their work and link that work to the planning card that they were working through. The intention is to better document the work and to demonstrate planned versus actual work.
Turning ‘technicians into sensors’ requires equipping them with tablets so they can capture data in real time. Knowing exactly how long each step of the process takes, and how many people it requires is crucial for planning future upgrades.
“By implementing the ILIAS software in Greece we have also standardized our organisation. The naming of locations, Mod docks, Warehouses, Repair centers have all been streamlined and formalized ” Conlan explains. “Having all of this information in one system has helped us to formalize that and convey that more effectively to our end users. It gives us a standardization of aircraft standardization data and a full spectrum of documentation.”
There are always obstacles
For Conlan, the biggest appeal of the ILIAS system is that it is built for the real world.
“We plan for a clean aircraft with no defects, and we plan to execute a mod on schedule, but that’s not reality. Determining the impact of ‘over and above’ was a critical concern. It was a lesson learned from previous programs and it’s something that we hope to catch through this program.”
Cristobal Desmaras, project member in Greece for ILIAS Solutions: “Before the pandemic, half of our time was spent attending in-person meetings. That might have seemed excessive then, but in hindsight, it was worth it.
“All those relationships that we built during the time and all those intensive workdays ended up paying off when it was a critical, while we were all quarantined at home working remotely.”
Through it all, the ILIAS software has kept everyone working with the same data, even if their physical locations were spread around the globe. Desmaras says, “Now that everything is digital you have to rely on your tools even more.”
The project hit its first major milestone earlier this year. In January, they were able to complete modifications on the first jet and fly it to America. That plane is now in the US for further testing and modifications. Despites its travels from Greece, via Belgium, to Fort Worth Texas, it continues to be tracked and monitored through the ILIAS system.
It’s early, but Conlan is already seeing benefits of Total Asset Visibility, a hallmark of ILIAS Solutions.
“What we found previously is that a lot of this data was available, but it was rarely correlated and aggregated and put side by side. Going through the process of uploading the data from the various data sources gives us the ability to really measure the quality of the data. This also gives us a full-spectrum view of the mod program, from the development of the kits, the procurement of the materials, the delivery of the materials, the reception, the stocking, issuing to the planning cards, the installation onto the aircraft, and then the delivery of the aircraft and the flights. It’s all documented in one system.”
The program is expected to run until 2027, and when it is complete, Greece’s fleet of F-16 will be ready for an array of new roles.
“It’s now a much more capable airplane. You can do more missions than it was originally intended for,” says Elileen Bjorkman. “I wouldn’t be surprised though if we’ve still got F-16s flying somewhere around the world in another 30 or 40 years.”