Beacon Hell: The 100% Failure-Rate Sat Phone

How a $30 million Air Force emergency-locator device program crashed and burned

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Beacon of Hope: The URT-44 was how Air Force aviators were supposed to call for help in the event of peacetime mishaps.

Military procurement is tough for taxpayers to figure out. Let’s face it: if the Air Force drops the sustained-turn performance of its F-35A fighter from 5.3 Gs to 4.6 Gs, as it did last year, how much should we care?

So sometimes it helps to deal with simpler technologies.

Take the Air Force’s new URT-44 personnel locator beacon (PLB), designed to help pinpoint aviators—who eject or otherwise leave their plane under emergency conditions—so they can be rescued. The Air Force has spent $30 million buying 17,000 of the devices since 2009 and deployed them in ejection-seat survival kits and parachute pockets. They’re about the size of a fat iPhone (2.6 inches wide, 4.9 inches high, 1.28 inches thick), and weigh a little more than a pound.

Mind you, this isn’t intended to locate downed pilots behind enemy lines, because it transmits signals to search-and-rescue units via satellite that the bad guys could intercept. The URT-44 is basically an $1,800 satellite phone that automatically rings for aid once a pilot or crew member goes down, and needs help getting home.

That’s what made its failure rate during testing last year—100%—so disconcerting.

If there’s a lesson here, it’s a pretty simple one: take everything you hear about military procurement, and the rigors of Pentagon testing, with a grain of silicon.

Here, according to the Air Force—the contractor didn’t respond to requests for details—is the sad tale, for both Air Force aviators and taxpayers, of the URT-44:

In November 2006, Signal Engineering, Inc., of San Diego, announced it had won the contract. “The beacon will provide Search and Rescue (SAR) Satellite Aided Tracking capabilities in addition to multiple homing signals to assist in the location and rescue of downed aircrew,” the company said in a press release.

After developing and building 20 samples, they’ll be subject to “a rigorous USAF trial test,” the company added. “After the completion of successful field trials, Signal Engineering will pursue USAF manufacturing contracts to replace all of the AN/URT-33 survival beacons currently in service which is estimated to be greater than 15,000.”

“Our company philosophy is very straight forward,” SEI says on its website. “Provide our customers with the highest performance and highest reliability communications equipment at the lowest price.”

In July 2008, SEI said it had won a second contract to “produce 54 production-representative First Article PLBs and other accessories which will then undergo a rigorous set of First Article Tests to prove its production readiness. Following First Article approval, production options under the awarded contract can then be exercised by the USAF for quantities ranging up to an estimated 15,000 to 18,000.”

The Air Force wrapped up that “rigorous set of First Article Tests” in five months, the company announced in a December 2008 release. Mass production was ready to start. “The PLB contains a very fast acquisition GPS receiver that provides a rapid and accurate location of aircrew, even before their feet hit the ground, enabling a quick and safe rescue operation via COSPAS/SARSAT  [Cosmitscheskaja Sistema Poiska Awarinitsch Sudow-Search and Rescue Satellites Aided Tracking, a multi-national consortium] and geosynchronous satellites,” the company said.

SEI said it had won “multiple production options” to begin producing thousands of the 19-ounce devices. “These awards follow the successful completion of rigorous USAF field trials and environmental testing,” the company noted. “The Signal Team met all required performance parameters.” Added Israel-based Tadiran-Spectralink, SEI’s key subcontractor: “At the end of a two-year effort, the Signal Team completed all tests with flying colors, including Cospas-Sarsat, Bailout, Sled, and exhaustive environmental tests, and the units delivered by the Signal Team received USAF’s ‘Safe-to-Fly’ approval.”

In September 2009, SEI announced it had won additional options boosting the total beacon procurement by 4,500, to 15,129. “Production options on this contract began to be awarded when the AN/URT-44 successfully completed rigorous USAF field trials and environmental testing in the latter part of 2008,” the company said. “The AN/URT-44 met all required performance parameters.”

That was the last press release on SEI’s website. That may be because contractors generally issue such releases only to trumpet good news. Unfortunately, there was little of that as the Air Force began sending out the new URT-44s to its aircraft fleet.

The new beacons began to fail in 2011. Failures continued to climb in 2012. In 22 ejections, they failed in 10 of those real-world emergencies. The Air Force discovered the beacons’ antennas, batteries and other electronic components weren’t up to the task. The service said it was ordering a “highly accelerated lifecycle test (HALT) series designed to determine the reliability of existing and retrofitted PLBs.” The Air Force paid SEI about $40,000 last year to compress five years of operation in two months for 36 of the beacons to see how they would fare.

“The HALT series, designed to simulate 5 years of the temperature swings, vibration and shocks the beacon would experience on an aircraft, will demonstrate with clarity the reliability of the AN/URT-44 as it exists now,” an Air Force contracting document explained in March 2013, “as well as the expected reliability of the retrofitted AN/URT-44s.”

The test didn’t go well.

“They had a 100 percent failure rate,” Air Force Colonel Aaron Clark, the Global Power Programs Directorate deputy director for Air Force acquisitions, said in a recent Air Force news story. “That showed us the system is not what we want to have in our aircraft.”

Wow. 100%? No one expects the military to succeed 100% of the time. But failing 100% of the time takes work. How could it have happened?

“Prior to purchasing the URT-44s, the [Air Force] Program Office [responsible for buying the devices] conducted two series of tests on the URT-44 beacon, including design verification testing (DVT) and first-article testing,” Air Force spokesman Ed Gulick explains. “While both tests followed the environmental testing guidelines outlined in the relevant military standard (MIL-STD-810F), neither test series evaluated the combined environmental effects such as hot/cold temperature cycling, vibration, and shock.”

So what SEI termed “rigorous” testing that key subcontractor Tadiran-Spectralink said the team had passed “with flying colors” had been done in a series of isolated, stand-alone tests, without exploring what impact they might have had if they’d occurred simultaneously.

Anyway, that’s what the Air Force says. “After the beacons were fielded in 2009-10,” Gulick says, “initial indications appear that the combination of these environments began causing many of the URT-44 beacons to fail.”

So the Air Force had decided to scrap all 17,000 URT-44s. It plans to replace them with new beacons for an estimated $55 million. “Following the rules of full and open competition,” Gulick adds, “Signal Engineering, Inc. will be allowed to compete for the contract to replace the URT-44.”