YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan -- Starting with a broken piece of electronic equipment, a small team of Yokota Airmen from the 374th Operations Support Squadron are leading the way in developing Pacific Air Force’s Agile Combat Employment (ACE) concept. Yokota’s Radar, Airfield, and Weather Systems (RAWS) shop engineered a fix for a mobile Tactical Air Navigation system that now enables aircraft to safely reach Landing Zones scattered across the Pacific.
“This mobile TACAN system directly enables PACAF’s ACE strategy to distribute aircraft to multiple smaller locations across the region, making forces resilient and quick to respond in the event of an adversary attack,” said Capt Arie Church, 374th OSS airfield operations flight operations officer.
Every TRN-41 mobile Tactical Air Navigation (TACAN) system in the Air Force sat awaiting demilitarization just over a year ago—roughly $4.5M in communications equipment. Instead, the RAWS team innovated a new power supply that brought the TACAN back from the brink of extinction.
The deployable TACAN antenna gives military aircraft a signal that guides them safely to a landing zone.
“Think of it like a lighthouse off the shore, but it’s electromagnetic,” said Master Sgt. Dwight Rehm, 374th OSS RAWS section chief. “It sends the aircraft the identification of the landing zone, their direction in respect to the beacon, and their distance from the site to help the aircraft navigate safely and accurately.”
The TRN-41 is unique, because unlike most TACANs, it is scaled small enough to be packed up, flown on an aircraft, and hand-carried out to a landing zone for a setup in under an hour.
“It’s a quick-deployment capability,” Rehm said. “It’s a go-bag for ground communications to use instead of huge systems that take more time and manpower to set up. It’s a great tool to have in our arsenal and diversify our ACE capabilities.”
Man-portable equipment is ideal for forward-deployed locations, but this mobile unit was long-past its prime in more ways than one, according to Rehm.
“The main issue with them is that it uses a super old generator that converts gasoline to direct current power,” Rehm said. “They don’t make generators like that anymore with the same output power and the parts for this particular model aren’t made anymore.”
Over a six-month span, Rehm and the RAWS team researched industrial equipment, drafted a design, and completely reengineered a power supply, ultimately costing around $1500.
“I was in the desert when we rolled into Baghdad and we didn’t always have the necessary equipment,” Rehm said. “Out there, you have what’s on hand and you may have to retrofit stuff to make it work. In a combat zone, it has to work.”
The RAWS team tested the finished product at Yokota before deploying it to the remote island of Adak, Alaska in support of Exercise Red Flag last year. In its first month of use, this mobile TACAN alleviated the need for fighter aircraft diverts, saved $6M in fuel, and was successful enough planners requested it for support at Adak again this year.
As a result of RAWS efforts, the Air Force decided to restart depot-level support for the TRN-41 and is now refurbishing and redistributing mobile TACANs to units across the Air Force in support of ACE.
“Yokota RAWS engineered a technical solution to make the system usable again which was benchmarked Air Force-wide,” said Capt. Church. “Yokota RAWS is assisting to train personnel within PACAF to also operate and deploy the system, expanding capacity within the Indo-Pacific area of operations.”
PACAF designated Yokota as its “pilot unit” for developing small, deployable teams, capable of quickly establishing aircraft LZs, and RAWS is currently finalizing the training, equipment and concepts that will be adopted PACAF, and potentially, Air Force-wide.
The RAWS team effort culminated in their winning the Air Force’s 2019 Colonel Joseph B. Duckworth Award for the most significant contribution to the art and science of aerospace instrument flight, and PACAF’s 2020 Lima Site 85 Award for the top RAWS team.