HILL AIR FORCE BASE The Air Force saw a spike last summer in the number of dud bombs that were dropped in military operations in Iraq.
Besides the fact that today's high-tech munitions are expensive enough to match many a taxpayer's mortgage, duds are costly to the military because enemy forces are trained to scavenge unexploded bombs and refashion them into improvised explosive devices that are then used against U.S. ground forces.
A weapons testing program taking place at Hill Air Force Base this week, nicknamed Combat Hammer, is part of the Air Force's ongoing effort to test weapons systems in training missions that also prepare air crews for upcoming deployments to the Middle East.
Early Tuesday morning, an F-15E squadron from Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho carried GPS-guided 2,000-pound bombs to targets in Utah's west desert as scores of weapons systems experts at the base observed to collect data and evaluate weapons performance.
Testing flights during the past week also have included B-1s and B-2s, and F-16s and F-22s.
Lt. Col. Dean Ostovich, commander of the 86th Fighter Weapons Squadron at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, conducts Combat Hammer and quickly acknowledges he is working in a "growth industry."
The Air Force had 50 weapons systems to test and maintain in 1986. It has 13 different aircraft and 98 weapons systems combinations today, with the number climbing soon to 114 weapons systems.
Each aircraft has computers that make the jet's bombing systems work. And in today's military, each weapon has one or more computer systems.
"Each time there is a software update, there's a potential glitch," Ostovich said.
When Ostovich's squadron investigated the dud spike last summer, "We found a whole slew of things that can be improved." In that case, corrosion was taking its toll on bomb components in stockpiles stored outside in extreme temperatures. The investigation led to changes in inspection schedules for bomb stockpiles in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Members of the test squadron and pilots waiting for their turn to fly Tuesday morning watched real-time video as GPS-guided JDAM bombs dropped from the under-wing rails of the F-15s. From 20,000 feet and a distance of 15 miles, the jets would then veer away as the weapons systems operator in the two-seater fighter used a video feed from a camera in the nose of the bomb to steer each bomb towards a four-foot-square target.
Observers on the ground watched the same video and a separate image fed from a camera on the ground that was trained on the target. Bomb after bomb sailed into the small target with deadly precision.
Reporters were invited to watch some of the weapons runs, while other runs were classified.
First Lt. Scott "Wolf" Crowell, one of the visiting F-15 pilots with the 391st Fighter Squadron from Idaho, made bombing runs Monday in the exercise. Members of his wing have been deployed to the Middle East recently, and Crowell is awaiting his first deployment this fall.
He acknowledges the value of the weapons systems training. "When we deployed to Afghanistan last year, a lot of bombs didn't work the way we thought they would that's why we're here."
F-16 crew chief Staff Sgt. James Deczynski, here for training from Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina, also is awaiting his first deployment to the Middle East later this year. For him the exercise gives a better idea what the operations tempo will be "while over in the box."
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