PATUXENT RIVER, Md. –
The Navy this summer accepted the first Block II E-6B Mercury upgraded entirely by Northrop Grumman Corp., an initiative that is slashing modification times thanks to practices implemented by the Airborne Strategic Command, Control and Communications Program Office.
The program office began the herculean task of upgrading each of its 16 E-6B Mercury aircraft in 2017, but quickly found that taking the planes out of service for 475 days—the average turnaround time for the first two Block II modifications completed—was not sustainable. It needed a faster way to deliver the required capabilities to the fleet.
Initially three installers were responsible for the six engineering change proposals (ECPs) required for Block II. They include a combination of mission systems upgrades and aircraft sustainment initiatives.
The solution: integrate the six ECPs into one Block II modification contract and implement practices, including Performance to Plan, to transform the process. The program office awarded the Integrated Maintenance and Modification Contract (IMMC) to Northrop Grumman in February 2022 and inducted the first aircraft under the agreement three months later, in May 2022. That was 90 days ahead of the contract schedule.
Northrop Grumman delivered that aircraft in record time—392 days—and beat that record on the second plane, which it delivered on Oct. 24 after 255 days. The North Star turnaround time (TAT) required by the IMMC is 180 days, a goal that is expected to be met by the third aircraft.
“We must achieve our target turnaround time in order to ensure our warfighters have enough mission-ready aircraft equipped with the upgraded communications capabilities that they require,” said Capt. Adam Scott, program manager. “Every organization involved in producing a Block II aircraft is collaborating, identifying and solving problem areas, and setting aggressive goals to accomplish this no-fail mission, and we are seeing results.”
A No-Fail Mission
The E-6B Mercury is a communications relay and strategic airborne command post aircraft. It executes the no-fail Take Charge and Move Out (TACAMO) and Looking Glass missions. TACAMO connects the president, secretary of defense and U.S. Strategic Command with naval ballistic missile forces during times of crisis. Looking Glass facilitates the launch of U.S. land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles using an airborne launch control system.
Together they provide strategic nuclear deterrence against America’s adversaries.
They are deployed worldwide by air crews from Strategic Communications Wing 1 (SCW-1) out of Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma.
The E-6B Mercury fleet, which started as the E-6A in 1986, has been in service for 37 years and requires upgrades to continue effectively executing its missions into the foreseeable future. The six ECPs included in Block II will provide more secure, modernized communications systems.
The E-6B’s successor, the E-XX, will be delivered under the TACAMO Recapitalization Program and will eventually take over the TACAMO mission.
Until the E-XX is delivered, the E-6B must be mission-ready. The fleet is vital to the military’s nuclear command, control and communications at a time when Russia, China, North Korea and Iran are increasingly vocal about their nuclear capabilities.
“The best way for us to deter our adversaries from using nuclear weapons is by assuring them that we are always ready and willing to respond,” said Scott.
The IMMC solution
The Airborne Strategic Command, Control and Communications Program Office, a Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) acquisition program, began upgrading its aircraft in 2017, with three separate entities completing the work out of Waco, Texas. But without a single installer empowered to drive schedule and performance, delays ensued.
Leadership corrected course, moving to an IMMC with the goal of reducing delays by setting aggressive goals—including the 180-day TAT—embracing a Performance to Plan mindset and improving collaboration. This is the first time a single company is responsible for the entire installation, reducing bureaucracy and improving speed.
Northrop Grumman is conducting the upgrades out of its Aircraft Maintenance and Fabrication Center (AMFC) in Lake Charles, Louisiana. The $111 million IMMC is for the remaining 12 aircraft in the fleet and is scheduled for completion by 2026.
Getting Real, Getting Better
The Block II modification team consists of Northrop Grumman, V2X, the program office and Fleet Readiness Center Southeast (FRCS). Together, they’re embracing the Navy’s Get Real, Get Better practices to deliver required capabilities to the fleet as quickly as possible.
As the E-6B mission systems leads, Rich Wooldridge and Cmdr. Jeff Desmond led the charge, said Bob Stailey, the E-6B deputy program manager at the time.
“The Block II team aggressively tackled the challenge of improving the Block II modification process and their success is demonstrated by the downward trend in turnaround times,” Stailey said. “This wouldn’t have been possible without their creative thinking and fully embracing the Navy’s Get Real, Get Better practices.”
The team implemented process improvements that span engineering, scheduling, management and production. They improved production control on the modification line, streamlined engineering dispositions, increased support manning and established an executable integrated master schedule aimed at achieving the 180-day deadline.
They established a weekly meeting, known as a Heads Up Display (HUD), bringing all of the organizations together to report on their performance in real time, elevate barriers and workshop solutions. The HUD format improves accountability by assigning individual ownership and deadlines for specific tasks. Regular reporting of real-time data allows the team to identify and solve problems early, before they cause delays. It also ensures everyone is aligned on goals and expectations.
“The HUD demonstrates Performance to Plan in action,” Scott said. “The team embraced the Naval Aviation Enterprise guiding principles and, over time, developed the trust required to openly discuss performance shortfalls and address them as a team. They established clear plans and measured performance to those plans weekly. The frequency of their interactions and the wide dissemination of information accelerated decision-making and barrier removal. By applying these Get Real, Get Better principles, the Block II modification team is expediting increased capability to the fleet.”
FRCSE provided engineering, production artisan and logistician personnel in support of the E-6B Block II modification. The artisans included sheet metal workers, electricians, machinists, non-destructive inspectors and planners. All told, FRCSE contributed 26 personnel and more than 8,700 hours of work to help bring this vital upgrade to a national strategic asset.
Continued challenges include material condition discovery, part supply backlogs and manpower, but the team is well-equipped to overcome them, Scott said.
The IMMC also provides another benefit: maintenance flexibility. In addition to the six Block II ECPs, the contract provides options for Northrop Grumman to perform depot-level in-service repairs (ISRs) as needs arise. This saves time and money—especially on critical ISRs that ground an aircraft—and improves overall fleet readiness.
For example, under the IMMC, Northrop Grumman was able to quickly repair a cracked tail on one of the aircraft undergoing a depot event at Tinker Air Force Base.
NAVAIR Commander Vice Adm. Carl Chebi recently explained why Get Real, Get Better practices, such as those employed by the program office, are vital to the success of the Naval Aviation Enterprise (NAE).
“Today’s challenges require the NAE to think, act and operate differently,” Chebi said. “The rules of the game have changed, requiring the NAE to change and adapt. This is the impetus behind CNO’s call to Get Real, Get Better and the launch of the Capability, Availability and Affordability North Star initiatives.”
The program office inducted the third aircraft under the IMMC on Aug. 18 and expects delivery in February 2024.
Kathy Hieatt is a public affairs officer for the Airborne Strategic Command, Control and Communications Program Office.