ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE -- Thousands at Robins work to keep the Air Force's cargo aircraft maintained, while one small unit works to make sure the vulnerable, slow-moving planes don't get shot out of the sky.
In the 566th Electronics Maintenance Squadron a group of 15 technicians, including Northrop Grumman employees, work on the Large Aircraft Infrared Counter-Measure system, more commonly known as LAIRCM.
First deployed in 1996 on a small number of aircraft, the system has been effective in protecting planes from the threat of shoulder-fired missiles in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Jeff Lamb, the avionics and instruments supervisor in the squadron.
About four years ago Robins began doing repair work on one component of the complex system, the processor, but now is ramping up to do more of the components and the majority of the testing.
"It's a good, solid workload coming into the center," said Ben Harrison, the depot activation point of contact for the base business office. "It's bringing in a new capability."
Although there are more parts, the heart of the system is a processor that detects missiles and a laser turret under the plane that shoots out beams when there is a threat.
The laser confuses the missile and directs it away from the aircraft. Previously planes used a system that sent out a spray of flares around the plane to direct the heat-seeking missiles away.
That system in action made for impressive photos, but the problem with it, Lamb said, is that it had a limited number of flares so a plane would be vulnerable in the event of multiple attacks. The advantage of LAIRCM, he said, is that it can fire as many times as needed.
It's also a fully automated system, so pilots don't need to activate it. Previously it didn't even alert pilots of a missile threat, but pilots didn't like the idea of not knowing when a missile was coming at them, so an alert warning was added.
The system has been so effective that it will eventually be on every cargo aircraft, including the C-17, C-5 and C-130 maintained at Robins. It also is used on helicopters.
Whenever the planes without the system come in for programmed depot maintenance, it is installed then. That's done separately from unit that maintains the system, so it's additional workload created.
The laser is tested in a small room with black walls, but it is also tested on the flight line by driving a vehicle around a plane.
Ronnie Massengale, director of the squadron's Avionics and Instruments Flight, said maintaining the system is an important job.
"It's all about supporting the warfighter and keeping them safe and keeping the planes from being damaged," he said. "It's all about looking after the ones who are looking after us."