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Drones Lose Again

110413-F-TY646-153: BGM167A Drone sits on the Rocket Assisted Take Off (RATO) launcher, in preparation for launch.  The drone serves as primary target for the 104th Fighter Wing’s F-15s who are participating in Exercise COMBAT ARCHER during the Weapons System Evaluation Program at Tyndall AFB Fla.  The exercise allows pilots and maintainers valuable training in the employment of live air-to-air munitions and tests the capabilities of the weapon system. (photo by Master Sgt. Mark Fortin, 104th FW/PA)

110413-F-TY646-153: BGM167A Drone sits on the Rocket Assisted Take Off (RATO) launcher, in preparation for launch. The drone serves as primary target for the 104th Fighter Wing’s F-15s who are participating in Exercise COMBAT ARCHER during the Weapons System Evaluation Program at Tyndall AFB Fla. The exercise allows pilots and maintainers valuable training in the employment of live air-to-air munitions and tests the capabilities of the weapon system. (photo by Master Sgt. Mark Fortin, 104th FW/PA)

110414-F-TY646-020: One of the Air Force’s three naval vessels stands-ready to rescue the downed BGM167A Drone after it is shot down by F-15C Eagle from the Massachusetts Air National Guard. .   The drone serves as primary target for the 104th Fighter Wing’s F-15s who are participating in Exercise COMBAT ARCHER during the Weapons System Evaluation Program at Tyndall AFB Fla.  The exercise allows pilots and maintainers valuable training in the employment of live air-to-air munitions and tests the capabilities of the weapon system. (photo by Master Sgt. Mark Fortin, 104th FW/PA)

110414-F-TY646-020: One of the Air Force’s three naval vessels stands-ready to rescue the downed BGM167A Drone after it is shot down by F-15C Eagle from the Massachusetts Air National Guard. . The drone serves as primary target for the 104th Fighter Wing’s F-15s who are participating in Exercise COMBAT ARCHER during the Weapons System Evaluation Program at Tyndall AFB Fla. The exercise allows pilots and maintainers valuable training in the employment of live air-to-air munitions and tests the capabilities of the weapon system. (photo by Master Sgt. Mark Fortin, 104th FW/PA)

( Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla.) -- A critical component of the Weapon System Evaluation Exercise (WSEP) and Exercise COMBAT ARCHER, the two week training exercise designed to test and train F-15 and F-22 pilots to employ live air to air missiles against maneuverable aerial targets, is the BGM167A Drone. The orange radio controlled drone serves as an evasive target for the fighter jets from Tyndall AFB in Fla. flying in support of the mission.

Anticipating the launch of a drone is similar to preparing to watch fireworks on the 4th of July. The unmanned rocket propelled target suddenly blasts skyward from the Rocket Assisted Take Off (RATO) launcher with considerable force to be pursued and destroyed by fighters.

The jet fueled aerial target serves as a particularly valuable training tool for the F-15 pilots of the 104th Fighter Wing based at Barnes Air National Guard Base in Westfield, Mass. For the F-15 pilots from the 104th FW, never use live weapons in training at Barnes, this exercise allows them the opportunity to fire live air-to-air weapons in a simulated combat scenario.

"The drone is equipped with electronic warfare pods that act as jamming devices and it also has chaff and flaring capabilities," said Senior Airman Pat Naler, the subscale logistics manager of the launch site. "It is not a vulnerable target," said Naler, a native of Granite City, Ill.

The drones contain valuable apparatus that necessitate that the remnants of the structure be recovered in the gulf waters adjacent to the base. This task falls to a unique unit that is known as the "navy of the air force." Three Air Force vessels comprise the only marine unit in the Air Force. These missile retrievers are operated by Florida Offshore, a military contractor.

Staffed with a six man crew, these orange boats are often confused with Coast Guard vessels but are the sole property of the U.S. Air Force and are exclusively devoted to retrieving drones and other military assets. "We are out there every day and sometimes at night," said the owner of the company, John Anderson. "These guys are shooting down a lot of drones," added Anderson.

"It was three years of hard work culminating in one great moment," said Lt. Col. Alexander Haldopoulos, the Director of Operations for the 131st Fighter Squadron, located at Barnes Air National Guard Base in Westfield Mass, as he described the exhilaration of pulling the trigger, or as he refers to it as "pickling one off".