Air-to-Air Weapon System Evaluation Program
The Weapon System Evaluation Program (WSEP) consists of 3 broad efforts: Air-to-Air WSEP (A/A WSEP; Combat Archer), Air-to-Ground WSEP (A/G WSEP; Combat Hammer), and Nuclear WSEP (Combat Sledgehammer). The program evaluates weapon systems in their entirety, including aircraft, weapon delivery system, weapon, aircrew, technical data, and maintenance, so the Air Force can assess operational effectiveness, verify weapon system performance, determine reliability, evaluate capability and limitations, identify deficiencies, and pursue corrective actions. It also gives crews valuable practice with actual weapons.
The A/A WESP was conducted at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida. The 53rd Weapons Evaluation Group at Tyndall Air Force Base conducted Combat Archer, which exercised and evaluated the total air-to-air weapon system capability of Air Force combat aircraft. For pilots who normally flew with training weapons at home, live-firing their weapons first at Combat Archer instead of in combat provided confidence. The 53rd Weapons Evaluation Group was comprised of 4 squadrons and one Detachment. The 81st Test Support Squadron and the 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron and the 83rd Fighter Weapons Squadron were both located at Tyndall. The 86th Fighter Weapons Squadron was located at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. Detachment 1, 82nd ATRS was located at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico. The Group conducted both the United States Air Force (USAF) Air-to-Air Weapon System Evaluation Program, known as Combat Archer (COMACC Plan 85), and the USAF Air-to-Ground Weapon System Evaluation Program, known as Combat Hammer (COMACC Plan 90). It also supported Weapons Instructor Course air-to-air formal training syllabi under COMACC Plan 92.
This exercise allowed pilots to experience what they could see in combat. During standard training flights, pilots go through all the steps to fire a missile except actually firing one, so there was no way to clearly validate whether the shot would have hit the target other than what was written in manuals as a valid simulation. Since pilots rarely got the opportunity to engage in actual air-to-air combat this was truly a unique opportunity.
The average pilot might get the opportunity to fire one air-to-air missile in 20 years of training. Some pilots might shoot one or 2 more missiles, but rarely. Part of the reason this type of training was so hard to come by was that it required a very large area, free from both ground and air traffic, to conduct the training safely. Combat Archer was uniquely set up to afford us this training and ensured the training was accomplished safely.
Not only did Combat Archer give aircrews the confidence from live firing weapons, but it gave Air Force weapons system managers a forum to verify system performance, capabilities and limitations. The program ensured the weapons worked the way the manufacturer said they would work. For example, E-210 block F-15E Strike Eagles, which were 1997 and 1998 models, fired live missiles for the first time during Combat Archer exercises in the early 2000s. In November 2010, 90th Fighter Squadron F-22s, which had not fired live air-to-air missiles did so as part of Combat Archer exercises.
Combat Archer tested the weapons systems of every Air Force combat aircraft platform and evaluates aircrews from more than 40 different units each year who fired AIM-7, AIM-9 Sidewinder, and AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles. The explosives in the missile warheads were removed and replaced with telemetry packages that tracked the weapons' flight path. The telemetry provided data to program managers.
Aircrews would shoot at targets that included MQM-107D Streaker subscale drones and unmanned modified QF-4 and later QF-16 aircraft. The drones, which were downed over the Gulf of Mexico were recovered by the 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron's own navy, a sub-unit of the 53rd Weapons Evaluation Group at Tyndall, and reused. Although the main mission was to shoot live missiles, the Eagle drivers also tested their warfighting skills against dissimilar aircraft platforms, such as F-16 Fighting Falcons from the 178th Fighter Wing, Springfield, Ohio, Air National Guard Base. Combat Archer also provided aircrews, maintainers, and support airmen the chance to prepare and deploy as a team before Air Expeditionary Force deployments.
The Combat Archer program for Fiscal Year 2009 encompassed 321 air-to-air missile launches. Of these, US pilots, include US Air Force, Navy, and Air National Guard aviators fired 289 (3 AIM-7, 144 AIM-9, and 142 AIM-120). Air Force pilots conducted test shots from F-15C, F-15D, F-16CJ, F-16CM, F-16DJ, F-16DM, and F-22A aircraft. The remaining 32 test shots conducted as part of the Fiscal Year 2009 Combat Archer program were launched by pilots from Germany, Canada, and Singapore.
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