Houston & Peach

F-22 debate unlikely to affect overall mission of Robins group

When the F-22s Raptor and the F-35 Lightning aircraft take to the skies, they will be flying with software maintained at Robins Air Force Base. The base has a new building, hundreds of engineers and lots of taxpayer money to program the Air Force’s new fighter jets.

Now Washington needs to decide just how many F-22s and F-35s the 402nd Software Maintenance Group needs to maintain.

In February 2008, with funds secured by two Georgia legislators in Washington, the base broke ground on a new $21 million facility for the 402nd Software Maintenance Group, an engineering unit on post.

The facility will house software engineers to work on the F-22 and F-35, among other programs, when it is completed in 2010.

“Software is the future and the creation of this new facility establishes Robins’ role in the future of aircraft sustainment,” Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R.-Ga., said in a written statement after the ceremonial opening of the project. “It ensures Robins will continue to play a major role in strengthening our national security.”

Rep. Jim Marshall, D.-Ga., called the facility “good for Georgia and good for the country.”

Now as the building rises, Washington debates next year’s defense spending authorizations, with the fate of both programs hanging in the balance. Chambliss is the F-22’s staunchest defender in the Senate, favoring the F-22 over the F-35, which he says has not been adequately tested by the Pentagon. Marshall has also championed the F-22’s cause in the House.

The F-22’s final assembly line is located at the Lockheed Martin facility in Marietta.

Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates is trying to end production of the F-22 program while authorizing more F-35s, which he says is better suited for air-to-ground combat. The F-35 is not yet a significant part of the Air Force’s fleet.

As far as Robins Air Force Base is concerned, the fate of the F-22 and the F-35 would almost be inconsequential if not for a structural change in how the Air Force maintains the software in its fleet.

“There used to be a saying, ‘The software followed the hardware,’” said Bob Zwitch, the director of the 402nd Software Maintenance Group.

“We’re trying to move away from that.”

In the past, most software engineers would collocate with the hardware engineers. Now most of the 402nd engineers program software — navigation, radar and communication systems — for planes that often are not even in the same time zone.

While F-22 software programs are maintained at Robins Air Force Base, the aircraft are flown to Hill Air Force Base, Utah, for hardware maintenance.

The result is that Robins Air Force Base, with the 402nd engineers leading the way, has become a software hub for many of the Air Force’s high-profile planes: the C-17, C-130, F-22, F-35 and Predator drones.

Many of the F-22s have already been built and will still keep the 402nd busy, even if the number of planes is capped at 187, as Gates has requested.

“That workload is coming to us,” Zwitch said.

The 402nd Software Maintenance Group employs about 800 engineers. Zwitch said the 402nd hires “about 70 to 80” engineers a year, and expects to hire even more after the new facility is completed.

To contact writer Thomas L. Day, call 744-4489.