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'Team Target' keeps Air Force on mark

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Albert Bosco
  • 325th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
The 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron here, known as "Team Target," is a key player in ensuring that air-to-air and surface-to-air weapons systems can meet the needs of the military in an ever-changing threat environment.

With technology changing at a blinding pace, systems often become obsolete before they are ever used. To counter this, 82nd ATRS people provide information to both system developers and the military about the ability of various weapon systems to respond to current and foreseeable threats.

The focus of the 82nd ATRS mission here is to provide tactically realistic targets for air-to-air missile systems, such as the AIM-120 AMRAAM and AIM-9 Sidewinder, while its detachment at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., provides targets to support evaluation of surface-to-air systems such as the Army Patriot and Hawk surface-to-air missile.

"The last thing you want to do is test a missile on the battlefield," said Maj. Alex Franco, 82nd ATRS assistant operations officer.

In order to effectively test a missile, it must be fired at something. For this reason, the 82nd ATRS uses a fleet of drones. Thirty-three modified F-4 Phantom aircraft, called QF-4s, and 48 subscale BQM-34 Firebee and MQM-107 Streaker drones serve as targets for various missile systems. The drones replicate real-world scenarios and provide data that allows developers and the military to identify and solve any problems or limitations within a particular weapon system.

The Department of Defense has mandated that weapon testing be accomplished using targets representative of real threats, according to Lt. Col. George Biondi, 82nd ATRS operations officer. Since air-to-air missiles were designed to shoot down airplanes, they must be tested against airplanes. While subscale drones are more cost-effective than QF-4s, they are significantly smaller, thus limiting the types of threats they can simulate.

"We're shooting down QF-4s because test requirements vary," said Franco. "Altitude, (infrared) signature, payload and speed are some of the variables that necessitate using full-scale targets. Subscale drones aren't as big, can't fly as fast or as high and can't carry the kind of payloads a QF-4 can."

One of the most fascinating aspects of the QF-4 mission is that it is operated by remote control. Rated contractors, operating from Gulf Range Drone Remote Control Systems, fly the aircraft via a computer terminal to the test area where the weapon is evaluated. In a perfect test scenario, the QF-4 flies remotely for the duration of the test; however, in the unlikely event that something goes wrong, the 82nd ATRS has two alternatives.

First, in the event of a communication loss between the QF-4 and the controller, or if the aircraft becomes unstable in flight, a mobile remote system can attempt to re-establish contact and fly the aircraft from a position near the drone runway allowing the operators to see the aircraft. If attempts to restore communications fail, or stable flight cannot be re-accomplished, the aircraft has an automatic destruct mechanism that will prevent it from crashing into an undesirable location.

Although the drone has sensors that relay information regarding flight characteristics and test parameters back to the controllers, there are no cameras to provide visual data. To provide the visual information to the controllers, the remote QF-4 is followed by a manned QF-4, acting as a chase aircraft during takeoff and landing.

"The manned aircraft provides a set of eyes for the controllers," said Franco. "If there is a problem with the system, the pilot can relay visible signs of malfunction to them."

As with any test program, the 82nd ATRS places heavy emphasis on safety. Before a drone is launched, hours of planning are done to ensure all possible scenarios have been thought out. Often, the 82nd ATRS will launch a manned QF-4 to determine operational limitations of both the aircraft and the weapon being tested. Ironically, sometimes even the manned QF-4 is flown by remote and the pilot is in the cockpit to monitor flight parameters and act as a backup in case things do not go as planned.

As an additional safety measure, the 82nd ATRS launches an E-9A, called a Widget, prior to testing. The E-9A is an airborne telemetry aircraft that provides data relay information to the remote pilot and test customer. Before the test, the E-9A searches the gulf with powerful sea surveillance radar to detect small vessels that may have entered the test area. Once the target area is clear, it climbs to 25,000 feet and prepares to provide telemetry data.

Once everything is set and the pilots have been briefed on the test parameters, the remote drone and manned chase plane take to the air. Upon entering the target area, the manned aircraft will break off to avoid becoming a potential target and the testing begins.

The remote controllers are able to fly the QF-4 as if they were actually in the aircraft, thus ensuring a realistic engagement. If the QF-4 is hit and damaged beyond recovery, the destruct sequence is activated and the QF-4 falls to the water below. If the QF-4 sustains little damage and can be flown back to Tyndall, it is recovered and repaired for use in later tests.

Although the QF-4 mission is only one facet of the 82nd ATRS mission, it is extremely vital to ensuring air-to-air dominance of the American warfighter, unit officials said.

The QF-4 is not the first full-scale drone used and it will not be the last. According to Biondi, the QF-4 is expected to stay in service until 2008, at which time a new drone, possibly a QF-16 could be selected to provide the information that allows military men and women to continue flying and fighting well into the future. (Courtesy of Air Education and Training Command News Service)