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Combat Archer: Evaluating the Whole Weapon System

A U.S. Air Force crew chief assigned to the 180th Fighter Wing, Ohio Air National Guard, conducts preflight checks Sept. 20, 2018 during Combat Archer, a two-week air-to-air Weapons System Evaluation Program to prepare and evaluate operational fighter squadrons' readiness for combat operations, at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida. Combat Archer equips 180FW Airmen with the skills they need to protect of the American homeland and provide increased capability to the Combatant Commander. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Shane Hughes)

A U.S. Air Force crew chief assigned to the 180th Fighter Wing, Ohio Air National Guard, conducts preflight checks Sept. 20, 2018 during Combat Archer, a two-week air-to-air Weapons System Evaluation Program to prepare and evaluate operational fighter squadrons' readiness for combat operations, at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida. Combat Archer equips 180FW Airmen with the skills they need to protect of the American homeland and provide increased capability to the Combatant Commander. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Shane Hughes)

TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Florida -- The sound of fighter jets roared above the pristine, sandy beaches of the Florida coastline. High above the sun-kissed tourists, F-16 Fighting Falcons chased after bright orange drones, following them out over the Gulf of Mexico where a pilot targeted them and fired a missile, ending any chance of the drone ever returning.

More than 150 Airmen from the 180th Fighter Wing, Ohio Air National Guard, participated in Combat Archer, a two-week air-to-air Weapons System Evaluation Program to prepare and evaluate operational fighter squadrons' readiness for combat operations, at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida from Sept. 10 – 21.

The exercise evaluated the performance of the whole weapon system from the Airmen who load missiles to the pilots who fire them, determining the reliability and capability of the 180FW to engage targets in combat by firing live missiles at subscale drones which take on the role of enemy aircraft.

“Combat Archer’s objective is to evaluate the missile and weapons system throughout the whole deployment of the weapon,” said Maj. Seth Carmody, a maintenance officer assigned to the 180FW. “That includes breaking out the missiles, loading them onto the aircraft and deploying the missiles to shoot down drones.”

The opportunity to load and fire live missiles is something Airmen don’t get to experience during routine training. Participating in Combat Archer is one of the few times most Airmen will get to work with live missiles outside of combat related deployments.

“Few people have actually had the opportunity to shoot a live missile,” said Maj. Randall Kreps, an F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot assigned to the 180FW and the project officer for the exercise. “It’s a great opportunity for us to come out here and employ a live missile, and something we’d want to see before we go to combat.”

“This training helps pilots who’ve never been in combat so they know what to expect, like how long the missile takes to come off the aircraft,” said Capt. William Ross, an F-16 pilot assigned to the 180th Fighter Wing who fired his first live missile during Combat Archer. “It helps us know the parameters for what type of shot we’ll take and what missile we’ll use in different situations.”

The 180FW fired more than 20 missiles during the exercise, but gaining firsthand experience firing live missiles is not the only benefit of the training at Combat Archer. The pilots also gain experience training with dissimilar aircraft and different branches of the military, enhancing the pilots’ abilities to integrate with other airframes and services, in joint operations, and providing increased capability to combatant commanders. The pilots trained alongside F-15 Eagles, F-22 Raptors and Navy F-18 Super Hornets.

“Fighting against F-16s all the time, we get to know everybody’s tricks.” Kreps said. “When we go overseas we’re going to see a wide variety of enemy aircraft and different techniques when we deploy. Being able to fight somebody other than an F-16 and seeing something we’re not used to and figuring out how to cope with that puts us in a better position to protect our country.”

“Training with dissimilar aircraft helps us know what to expect when we fly against something other than an F-16,” Ross said. “We’re pretty good at a lot of things, but there are other planes that do things differently than we do, and training against different jets gives us the experience to know what to expect.”

Combat Archer also evaluated the effectiveness of the 180FW maintenance teams, ensuring Airmen are qualified to and ready to deploy at any time.

“It gives the teams a chance to be evaluated on all the training we’ve done throughout the year,” Carmody said. “It gives everyone an idea of how well they’re doing, what they’re doing and why that’s important. It also gives WSEP data that allows them to evaluate where we’re at and how well we’re doing.”

Kreps said the biggest challenge the 180FW faced during the exercise was learning how to work with other units to share the airspace. It took a significant amount of work to coordinate between services to ensure they could all operate effectively and maximize the benefit of the training.

Carmody said the maintenance teams worked long days and often had shifts that were undermanned due to shifting flight times for the exercise, but good teamwork and communication helped the Airmen perform well and overcome the challenges they faced.

“It really gives the opportunity for the Airmen to step up and show what they’re made of,” Carmody said. “It gives them an opportunity to lead, show their technical abilities and show they understand their training.”

“These guys have been doing long shifts, and I haven’t heard one complaint from anybody,” said Chief Master Sgt. Jason Caswell, munitions flight chief assigned to the 180FW. “It’s the 180th way. We just get it done.”

While evaluating the performance of the whole weapons system is the purpose of this type of training, there are other benefits that aren’t as easy to measure, things like building comradery.

“Exercises like this build teamwork and comradery by getting everyone together in the same place for an extended time,” Ross said. “We get a chance to bond a lot more than we would at home, because we’re at work for ten or twelve hours a day and then we’ll go back to the hotel and go to the beach or the pool. It helps us get to know everyone that’s in the unit a little better.”

After all this missiles were fired, and the after action reports submitted, the Airmen of the 180FW packed up to head back to Ohio. Having completed the evaluation, they can rest easy knowing they are trained and qualified to meet any mission required of them.

“The 180th has performed very well out here, and we can definitely count on them to go out and make the mission happen,” said Tech. Sgt. Ricardo Ochoa, an aircraft maintenance evaluator assigned to the 83rd Fighter Weapons Squadron, the unit responsible for conducting the training at Combat Archer.