The Israeli Air Force's Unit 108 serves as the force's electronics plant. Fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, UAVs, weapon systems, air-defense systems and any other assembly containing electronics and used by the IAF is under the Unit's responsibility. "We maintain electronics for 40-50 years," says a senior IAF officer. The Unit has several secondary units deployed around the country, including one at Palmachim airbase that specializes in the maintenance of armament and air-defense systems. While the IAF consolidates its technological leadership status in an era of network-centric warfare, Unit 108 serves as its Punctum Archimedis (Archimedean Point).
Among other things, the Unit deals with one of the most worrisome phenomena of the technological-defense world: counterfeit electronic components. Admittedly, we are unable to elaborate on the capabilities of the IAF in this field, owing to confidentiality considerations, but IAF officials told us that "We are aware of the problem and develop our own capabilities: strict separation, blocking techniques, containment and various other methods. The IAF Quality Assurance Department, along with MATSOV (the Encryption & Security Center), issue directions regarding this issue."
Operational & Economic Efficiency
In the IAF, the electronics maintenance activity is divided among three primary maintenance levels: the organizational ("A") maintenance level handles the aircraft at the airbase. The intermediate ("B") maintenance level is also located at the airbase and serves as the first field laboratory that supports the organizational maintenance level. This maintenance level handles assemblies down to the resolution of PCB replacement. Component-level operations or more complex problems are escalated to the depot ("D") maintenance level at the MOFET (Development & Maintenance Systems) organ of Unit 108, which constitutes its largest secondary unit. Along with the engineering/technical echelons, the Unit includes operations administrations. Unit 108 operates under the IAF's Equipment Group and provides services to all IAF bases (there is no particular reason for the absence of a "C" maintenance level. According to the IAF, that was how the electronics maintenance activity of the force evolved over the years).
"No other element in the IAF deals with the development or maintenance of electronics," they explain at the IAF. "Over the years, the character of the Unit placed the emphasis on aircraft maintenance with limited development activity. It may be stated that 90% of the activity are devoted to maintenance and 10% to development."
The process of acquiring an aircraft or a system for the IAF involves a procurement contract with the supplier that includes initial maintenance for a limited number of years. This period can range between three and five years on average, and after it ends, the IDF, along with IMOD, have to decide how the maintenance activity should be handled from that moment on. In most cases, renewing the maintenance contract with the original supplier for an additional period will cost the IDF a fortune. This is where Unit 108 comes into the picture, and during the initial maintenance period, it acquires the skills required in order to maintain the various assemblies of the system independently.
"The suppliers generate higher profits from long-term maintenance than they do from the initial sale. Consequently, in most cases it will be economically worthwhile for us to maintain the systems on our own," they say at the IAF. "Another aspect in the supplier's view is the retroactive compatibility of his production lines. If after the end of the initial five-year period the supplier still operates production lines of the same systems, it will be worth his while to sell maintenance services at a reasonable price. If, however, his production lines were converted to new versions or new technologies, maintaining the production lines just for us would become very costly and not worth our while."
In the IAF, they would have preferred to have a complete knowledge transfer from the supplier as early as during the system acquisition stage, but in reality, the situation is different. The suppliers keep their knowledge very close to their chest in order to attempt and win a long-term, profitable maintenance contract later on. This equation compels Unit 108 to act quickly, and within a small number of years to study every system and all of its components very thoroughly. "As the initial acquisition contract draws to a close, we initiate an IPT process of financial evaluation of the future maintenance activity. We possess testing equipment capable of providing solutions even for components and systems regarding which we do not yet possess the complete know-how. This significantly changes our position vis-à-vis the supplier," they explain at the IAF.
Aspiring for more In-House Development
In the past year, Unit 108 went through an organizational revision process with a clear objective – using the human capital to develop more in-house. To date, the lion's share of the development of electronic systems for the IAF has been done by the defense industries. "Unlike the IDF Intelligence Directorate which maintains its own electronics development units, in the IAF only the design is carried out in-house, and the development is carried out by the industries. In this situation, our people do not have sufficient practical experience in the development of electronics, and that is something we want to change."
One of the reasons why development outside the IAF became the norm is the financial scope of the projects. The cost of these projects can amount to billions of ILS, and some of them are carried out opposite industries overseas. The system development activity is conducted by the IAF's Equipment Group in the context of the force build-up processes. Unit 108 enters the picture as a professional in-process consultant on electronics. Admittedly, the Unit is engaged in local development activity, but this activity is limited in scope. "Some products are developed at the Unit and some of them are even sold to foreign countries," they explain at the IAF.
So, now they want to expand the local development activity. For this purpose, they are switching from hierarchical management to matrix management that will enable the men of Unit 108 to operate in both worlds – maintenance and development. "We established a CTO function under the commander of Unit 108, to be in charge of all of our secondary units with regard to the future vision. Alongside this function, we established a scientific/engineering section to be in charge of implementing the vision in all of the units. It will have the option of moving personnel and resources around according to the Unit's development objectives. The third leg is the establishment of a Project Management Office (PMO) for the unit. Admittedly, we had such an office in the past, but now it has evolved into a management institution. We adapted it to the depot maintenance level and to the scope of the Unit's development activities.
"These three legs are intended to serve as the management foundation for the establishment of a scientific/engineering innovation center at the Unit. At this center, we will divide the personnel of the Unit into development teams. Each team will have a leader who would meet with the team once a week. During the rest of the time, the men and women will address their normal maintenance tasks. About 65% of the Unit's personnel are compulsory service recruits. Most of them arrive as associate engineers and complete their education to a full engineering degree during their military service. We select them while they are in the 12th grade of vocational school, and they complete their 14th-grade final project while serving with the Unit. On that day of the week, the soldiers, who normally deal with maintenance, will come to the meeting to engage in hands-on development. This activity is currently missing from the IAF routine operations."
Gateway for Small Industries
One of the ways in which the IAF deals with the suppliers' high maintenance costs and the need for innovation is by calling on small industries. To date, the IAF has cooperated mainly with Israel's major industries, and that has restricted competitiveness on the one hand while on the other hand leaving many ideas outside of the IAF. To change that, the IAF Commandant set forth a directive titled "Small Change to Big Bucks" or in other words – where can the IAF obtain more benefit for every Shekel it invests.
Pursuant to the Commandant's directive, Unit 108 wants to open the door to small industries. The Unit has a testing infrastructure, human capital and following the organizational revision – a local development infrastructure as well. "It is not anything official yet, but rather a process of consolidation. If a small industry wants to approach the IAF today about an idea or a development, it will be nearly impossible to accomplish. We want to change that. With the new configuration, that industry will be able to approach Unit 108 with the prototype or the idea, and the testing and development will be carried out at the Unit," they explain at the IAF.
Another activity in which the Unit is involved is maintenance for COTS (Commercial, Off-the-Shelf) products. As some of the assemblies are purchased from suppliers overseas, maintenance is specified in the procurement contract owing to proprietary information considerations. The people of the IAF explain that they cooperate closely with IMOD's Procurement Administration, including the Israeli procurement delegation in the USA, in order to have these issues sorted out and included in the agreements. "We work very methodically in this context," they say at IAF. "We found ways to perform quick maintenance that will not adversely affect the force build-up effort even subject to the agreements dictated by the contracts with the suppliers. Everything is carefully arranged subject to IMOD monitoring.
"You can take a PCB, package it so as to have it ready to take to the air, and not alter anything in it. If the supplier no longer provides support for that PCB, every agreement will include the option allowing us to replace components on the PCB. This does not require any specific knowledge. You simply purchase replacement components and replace the component on the PCB. We are not engaged in copying or duplication – only in maintenance."
In order to support all of the development and maintenance activities, the Unit was divided into system houses. The transition from a workshop to a system house took place about a decade ago, and it makes it possible to have the system tested through a broad perspective, from end to end. Each system house maintains a test station that simulates the aircraft or the complete system setup for the purpose of testing the systems before they take to the air.
"We have the option of physically simulating everything the IAF has. What we have is not a software simulator, but a real aircraft with all of its systems spread out. These are the test stations we received from the USA as part of the acquisition of aircraft like the F-15 or F-16. A test station compatible with the actual aircraft enables us to test the electronics through a range of scenarios the aircraft may enter during flight. Such tests are not conducted on any assembly at any time, but only subject to specific directions from Group HQ," they say at the IAF.
Unit 108 maintains close cooperation with the OFEK Unit – the IAF's software house. The OFEK Unit develops, among other things, the operating systems for the aircraft. Every system upgrade is regarded as an avionics block and the blocks must be tested on the electronics infrastructures of the aircraft before it takes to the air. The tests are conducted using the test stations of Unit 108.
"We specify a testing procedure for the operating system, and then test the architecture. We sometimes connect to the air control center also, in order to inject targets to the aircraft in the air, so as to verify that it actually works. Such tests must be authorized by Group HQ, and are not conducted very often owing to the risk involved, but they are mandatory in some cases," they explain at the IAF. "The Unit also contributes to accident investigations in situations where electronics assemblies have to be investigated. Another activity involves investigations of operational incidents, like incidents involving faulty or dysfunctional armament. In such cases, the element under test is removed from the aircraft and investigated at the Unit. The same goes for malfunctions in synchronization between assemblies."
Multiple-Arm Electronics? Still in its Infancy
The recent discussions in the IDF regarding interoperability and combined-arms operations notwithstanding, as far as electronics are concerned, each arm works alone, for the time being. "Over the years there was no inter-arm cooperation in the IDF with regard to electronics," they explain at IAF. "In the last few years, there has been a change, but in pertains mainly to joint setups or to services provided mainly to other arms. There is very little development or maintenance of common assemblies. Strict separation is in effect between the arms as far as electronics are concerned. The change is yet to be felt."
The cooperation of the last few years is also reflected in the occasional meetings of the IDF arms and the industries. In these meetings, the participants attempt to reach common specifications vis-à-vis the industry. Another aspect involves joint meetings in an attempt to identify opportunities for cooperation. "Bear in mind that one of the lessons of the Yom-Kippur War was the need to develop islands of independent capabilities, so that the air arm can operate independently of other arms. We have cooperative alliances with the arms and the C4I Directorate, but these are very large organs and it sometimes takes a long time to reach the function you are looking for. There is no operational substitute for independent capability in some activities. A constant tension exists between the desire to work together and the need for an independent capability."
There is no doubt that as the electronics plant of the IAF, Unit 108 bears a heavy burden of responsibility on its shoulders, especially in an era when the IDF engages in network-centric warfare, and the net is based on electronics. The vision of the Unit, subject to this aspect, is to provide a one-stop-shop for the entire subject of electronics in the IAF, independently from any other elements. "Maintenance and development," they say at the IAF. In view of this vision, one of the primary challenges facing the Unit is coping with the maintenance of the F-35 aircraft. "We have not yet assimilated the contents of the maintenance activity of the F-35 aircraft. When we are ordered by HQ to do that – we will comply.