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Contract award to enhance in-flight operations for top U.S. officials

by Chuck Paone
66th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

4/22/2010 - HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. (AFNS) -- Air Force officials here issued a contract award in mid-April that will provide highly reliable, secure and integrated voice, data and video equipment for airborne U.S. senior leaders.

The nearly $209 million award to Rockwell Collins will allow Air Force officials to retrofit a fleet of 20 special aircraft used to ferry senior U.S. officials, including the vice president, secretary of Defense, secretary of State and other high-ranking military and government members.

While on board, these key leaders must be able to carry out their official, day-to-day duties and respond to emergency situations.

The effort, which will be completed by 2016, will result in a standardized, state-of-the-art command, control and communications system for the fleet, said Karl Gregor, a member of the Senior Leadership C3 System - Airborne Communications Program.

The current fleet includes 10 C-37s, four C-40s, four C-32s and two C-20s.

Each aircraft type currently has its own unique communications suite, said Mike Mason, a member of the program office team.

Right now the fleet lacks standardized capabilities and functionality. Those capabilities are needed for situational awareness, reach-back to home-station resources, collaboration and command and control.

In addition to standardization and modernization, the new system should also be more compatible with what senior leaders use in their offices, said Paul Funch, a system engineer. This is important because these officials need to operate as smoothly and efficiently in flight as they can on the ground.

Specific hardware will include new routers, secure phones, video teleconferencing equipment, monitors and more.

The team plans to field the first package on a C-37 by summer 2012. This will be preceded by an acquisition milestone C decision that grants authority to proceed with production and deployment in 2011.

The program entered Milestone B, engineering and manufacturing development, just before contract award, whereas a program generally needs milestone B approval before proposals are even requested.

This more aggressive track was made possible by several factors, the most significant being the maturity of the technology, which minimizes risk. Using a firm fixed-price contract also helped, as this minimizes government cost risk, said Robert Powell, a program team member.

"It's also in line with what Department of Defense officials want programs to be using now," he said.

Program officials cited use of a multifunctional independent review team as another key factor that allowed the acquisition to move smoothly. The inclusion of Legal Office and Acquisition Excellence Office experts proved particularly helpful.

"The MIRT process was very valuable in ensuring a clean request for proposal and a solid source selection," said Sean Finley, the SCP deputy program manager.

The program team will move immediately to a post-award conference with the contractor and then to completion of a system requirements review this summer and a preliminary design review by fall.

Throughout the effort, the team will use a modified KC-135 Stratotanker, known as Test Tanker II, to help test and integrate the technology. Though primarily a test asset, the plane also occasionally doubles as a transit platform for top Air Force leaders, which makes it the perfect platform for this kind of testing.

"That allows us to combine our testing with actual senior leader travel and to get some significant feedback from them," Mr. Mason said. "It also eliminates the need to take an operational platform out of the field for testing."

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