UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!

Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Combat Sledgehammer
Nuclear 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.

As part of annual Combat Sledgehammer efforts in October 2008, a B-52 Stratofortress flown by an aircrew from the 23rd Bomb Squadron at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota fired a modified 3,600 lb. air-launched cruise missile. The sortie was a simulated nuclear missile launch over the Utah Test and Training Range. Personnel in the 49th Test Squadron (49th TEST) performed at least 6 advanced multi-layered live-fire scenarios per year. The goal was to evaluate every aspect of a nuclear missile launch, from the munitions maintainers to the weapons loaders to the aircrew down to those who fuse and launch the weapon itself. The process begins with a yearly order from Air Combat Command officials to conduct the evaluation. Coordination and scheduling were then immediately initiated with officials in the 49th TES, located at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana. Coordination and scheduling included Mission Control Center support from the Utah Test and Training Range for missile release and impact; fighter chase aircraft from the 422rd Test and Evaluation Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, to act as safety observers to ensure civil aircraft avoidance outside restricted airspace; tanker aircraft support for refueling; and helicopter support for missile recovery and cleanup operations.

Once a "release" date had been scheduled, movement begins. Two weeks prior to launch, the 49th Logistics Instrumentation and Weapons teams arrive at Minot Air Force Base to install the airborne instrumentation kit and the missile test instrumentation kit. Those kits were telemetry modifications on the B-52 and the missile. They recorded everything that happened on the aircraft and transmit pertinent weapon data to the Missile Control Center at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, which monitors all parts of the actual test shot. The instrumentation door on the missile allowed the test team in the MCC to monitor the missile performance, including INE alignment, fuel burn, engine performance, accuracy and navigation. The team also could maneuver the missile for safety or terminate the missile if the mission dictates.

Once the 49th TES personnel installed their instrumentation, the missile was put back in the hands of the maintainers and weapons loaders of the 5th Bomb Wing. The 49th TES teams then monitored each step of the movement and upload of the missile. During this time, constant continuity checks were performed, including missile interface tests to verify the missile was loaded correctly, and systems integration tests to ensure the weapon and aircraft were communicating. Another important check was the non-nuclear verification test. A machine called a T-569 scanned the missile's warhead area looking for gamma neutrons. This test was performed 3 times before the actual flight, twice before the missile could be moved from the integrated maintenance facility, then once more 24 hours prior to launch. This test was performed in order to ensure that there was no chance of delivering a nuclear asset at the test range. Finally the missile was loaded, the checks are complete, and it was time to fly.

A crew of 5 Airmen lifted off in the B-52 for the 5 hour sortie. A member of the 49th TES, known as an airborne test director, was added to the normal crew and was responsible for monitoring all airborne activities and assisted with test unique duties. After the missile is fired fighter chase aircraft visually tracked the missile in order to provide eyes-on the missile to ensure any safety of flight issues were resolved real-time. After "touchdown," an explosive ordnance disposal team cleared the range and the remains of the missile were collected. Data began being downloaded immediately and over the next month the complete Nuclear WSEP process was analyzed and put into a final report.

In 2009, the Nuclear WSEP conducted end-to-end, stockpile-to-target force development evaluations under the most realistic conditions possible. The program sought to validate and update mission planning factors such as weapon system accuracy and reliability. Accuracy was commonly understood at that time and was expressed as circular error probable and height-of-burst error. Weapon system reliability was the probability that an emergency war order-configured aircraft, reacting to a valid execution message, would launch, fly its mission, and deliver a weapon that would successfully detonate over the target, excluding the effects of enemy action. Air Combat Command's (ACC) 2 nuclear weapon systems were the B-2 bomber, carrying gravity bombs, and the B-52H, which carried gravity bombs and AGM-86 air-launched cruise missiles. Other commands operated nuclear-capable F-16Cs and F-15Es. Ten ACC Nuclear WSEP missions were flown in 2009. Based on these evaluations, ACC adjusted nuclear weapons planning factors periodically. Its most recent adjustment as of July 2010, which had occurred in July 2009, reflected testing through February 2009.

On of the 2009 Combat Sledgehammer evaluations occurred on 17 August 2009. As with all Combat Sledgehammer activity, the exercise involved several organizations coordinating together. The Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration staff supplied simulated bombs; Sandia National Laboratories officials determined the release parameters (altitude and airspeed); US Strategic Command members provided emergency action messages to test and control procedures; ACC Airmen set the annual schedule; the 53rd Wing staff coordinated planning details and provided an after-action report; and the 509th Bomb Wing members provided the B-2 aircraft, loaded the simulated weapon and flew the mission. The exercise also involved the 72nd Test and Evaluation Squadron, which coordinated with all the outside agencies involved and created an overall plan.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list

Page last modified: 23-07-2019 16:29:29 ZULU