"It's a very, very busy job. In this wing, we test and evaluate and optimize every fighter, every bomber, every RPA (remotely piloted aircraft, or drone), space systems, the combat rescue helicopter program. So we have a very, very broad portfolio."
EGLIN AFB — Last month, Col. Ryan Messer assumed command of the 53rd Wing, the Air Force's sprawling operational testing wing. Comprising more than 2,800 military and civilian personnel among 75 units in 23 different locations from California to Florida, the 53rd Wing is the last stop before new or improved aircraft or weapons systems are sent into the field for the combat Air Force.
Operational testing of an aircraft or weapons system, Messer explained, is "putting it in a combat-relevant environment, and trying to see if the end product before it's gone out to the field, or even once it's gone out to the field, is actually performing to the specs we need when we get into a combat (situation). We do that through three main lines of effort — we test, we evaluate and we optimize combat systems."
"It's a very, very busy job," Messer continued. "In this wing, we test and evaluate and optimize every fighter, every bomber, every RPA (remotely piloted aircraft, or drone), space systems, the combat rescue helicopter program. So we have a very, very broad portfolio."
Earlier this week, Messer — an LSU graduate commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1997 and F-15E Strike Eagle weapons system officer who previously served as vice commander of the 4th Fighter Wing at North Carolina's Seymour Johnson AFB — sat down with the Northwest Florida Daily News. With Messer was the wing's command chief, Chief Master Sgt. Justin Apticar, whom Messer selected personally for that role. Here are excerpts:
So you're the last stop for everything that's on an aircraft or weapons system before it's sent to the combat Air Force. Does the wing have any role in ongoing evaluation, as when an already operational aircraft or weapons system experiences problems in the field?
"Absolutely. In fact, testing is always ongoing. For instance, take the F-15E. It's been in service for a couple of decades-plus now. But we still test and evaluate the aircraft, such as flying with a new suite of software. It's like the latest upgrade to your personal computer — that's what we're looking at."
In addition to the test priority list that we receive from (Air Combat Command, under which the 53rd Wing works), we also look for urgent operational needs. These are things that are identified in-theater, where a warfighter figures out that maybe their aircraft wasn't working, or their system wasn't working, as they expected. They will send that issue back to us to see if we can find a solution rapidly. ...
Under the new National Defense Strategy, our former secretary of defense (Patrick Shanahan, who stepped down last month) talked about doing things 'at the speed of relevance.' That's the ability to get new systems and new updates out to the field faster than our competitors can put something else on the field."
How does that approach affect the wing?
"There definitely can be some long days. We want to ensure that we do tests with enough rigor that before we turn something back out into the field, it's going to work, because it's a no-fail mission at that point. A bomb has to come off of the aircraft properly, a missile has to be shot, the system has to perform as advertised. We find that we do have to balance the test rigor with getting something to the field quickly. ... It's like a football team -- you're on the field all the time, but there are certain times you have to push hard while you're running plays."
Eglin Air Force Base already is involved in the development of next-generation weapons like hypersonic missiles. How does the 53rd Wing stay ahead of the curve of new weapons development?
"We have people within our organization ... they'll focus on current capabilities, and then they'll look toward the future. They will stay in touch with the program offices that are actually working the acquisition programs for those new weapons systems. But we won't touch any of that until it's an established program.
When something like hypersonics eventually comes to us ... we would start to put it through more combat-oriented tests, not pristine environments, seeing how we could integrate with other aircraft. ...
We're getting into more rapid test and development, especially as many of our weapons systems are becoming more software-based, where in the past there was lot of hardware required to optimize or change a weapons system."
What are some of the challenges of operational testing?
"We plan everything that we do, because we are responsible to the taxpayer for their large investment in our defense.
If you fly for two hours, that is a very tiny portion of what we do. We then have to come back and analyze all of the data that we get from that test, and then we typically will write a report that goes back up the chain, stating everything that we found."
"An example of making things operationally relevant is something we do a couple of times a year called a large-force test event. That's where ... we take F-35s and F-22s and space systems and we integrate them all into as realistic a combat scenario as possible to see how these aircraft really perform when they're working with other aircraft, the way they actually would in-theater. We call that our 'deep end' testing. It's throwing these systems into the deep end of the pool, for lack of a better analogy. ..."
Can there be point when too much gets jammed into an aircraft or weapons systems?
There certainly can be information overload. .... The warfighter might be a lieutenant (new to the cockpit) and we need to make sure that we don't make things too complex. ... We have folks in this wing who have worked here for upward of four decades, and they are national treasures. They have designed some amazing systems for our nation. But sometimes when you take that engineered product — it's going to be highly complex, and it's going to work exceptionally well — (but) we often say you have to bring it down to the lowest common denominator so that it's something that can be employed.
I just came from one of our front-line wings. ... I spent 11 months flying with the 335th Fighter Squadron, and what was amazing is that squadron of around 60 individuals, over a third of it was lieutenants. It had been a long time since I had been in a squadron where there were so many lieutenants. I helped prepare a lot of them, and what we quickly realized was that you have to break everything down. You have to bring it down to basic concepts to build off of that and start putting the pieces together so they can do more complex missions. ... Because when you're over Syria and you merge with a Russian (fighter jet) you have to make decisions about whether you're really being threatened or not because the implications for a mistake are high.
So it's not just our systems that we develop, it's actually the tactics that they will employ as well. We do a lot of tactics development within this wing, where we go out and we test new methods, new ways of deploying ordnance or employing our systems ... ."
With regard to a specific weapons system, there has been a lot of reporting about the new F-35 fighter jet, in terms of challenges facing that program such as spare parts issues. Is the F-35 a problematic aircraft in terms of operational testing?
"I would say that it's not been difficult to operationally test the F-35. One of the neat things is that the F-35 is kind of like the iPhone. It's a piece of hardware, but what makes it amazing are the apps, or that software, that goes into it. Because it's a very software-centric aircraft, as we discover things, we're able to produce new mission data files that update the software, and we can evolve it very quickly.
Any new, very expensive, weapons system program is always going to be controversial. The F-35 has had a lot of controversy about it ... but I will tell you that having integrated with, and flown alongside F-35s, and having lots of friends that flew F-15s with me who have transitioned to the F-35, that it is a vastly capable aircraft."
Chief, could you talk about the wing's enlisted personnel, and your leadership role?
"We have extremely mature and sharp individuals that are well-rounded in their career field. The more effort that I put into personally developing them, giving them more capabilities, will enhance what they can contribute to our mission her at the 53rd Wing. They are the subject-matter experts within their field, so empowering them builds that confidence. We empower them to make the decisions that they need to make to enhance our mission and, obviously, to make the warfighter more lethal.
Col. Messer, could you talk about your command philosophy?
"I would say it centers on three things: people, mission and team. There are military commanders all over the globe, and the constant debate is, does mission come first, or do people come first? Ultimately, when the nation calls upon us, they are expecting us to execute the mission. The way I look at it is — as a leader, and as part of a leadership team — what we're emphasizing to all of our subordinate commanders and chiefs and superintendents is that if we invest in people, if we intentionally develop them, if we mentor them — holistically, across the board, with their spouses and families — they will actually move heaven and earth to execute the mission.
We all have an innate desire, as humans beings, to have a sense of purpose. ... All you really have to do is invest in your people, and tap into that desire, and I find that the mission usually takes care of itself.
I believe that no mater how much money we spend on future weapons systems, our asymmetric advantage as a nation in the future is the people that make up organizations like the 53rd Wing. ... Because no matter how much money we spend — or don't spend — they are always going to be the ones who come up with the creative solutions. ...
We often say that we are Air Combat Command's 'bringing the future faster' wing. But I told everyone in my change of command speech that I don't just want to bring the future faster, I want to define the future. I want every other nation on earth to look to this wing and to our Air Force and our nation and say we are the ones who are defining what the future looks like. I think that's very important."