OSAN AIR BASE, South Korea — The U.S. Air Force in South Korea is honing a tactic that sends fighter planes behind enemy lines to find and destroy mobile ground targets.

Called “Killer Scout,” and dating to the 1991 Gulf War, it differs from another air-to-ground mission known as close-air support, in which ground troops call in fighter support.

“It’s very proactive,” said Lt. Col. Rob Givens, commander of Kunsan Air Base’s 35th Fighter Squadron. “We’re not waiting for them to make contact with our ground forces. We’re going after them.”

Since February, the 7th Air Force has trained pilots in Killer Scout with an eye on the terrain and other conditions that would likely surface in an armed conflict on the Korean Peninsula.

“The 8th Fighter Wing is specializing in this now, getting the procedures and concepts good for Korea,” said Col. Ellsworth Tulberg, the 7th Air Force’s operations director.

Once the Korea-specific procedures have been further shaped, the 51st Fighter Wing “will eventually transition to this type of training,” along with South Korean air force fighter units, Tulberg said.

In a typical Killer Scout mission, a fighter plane scours an assigned sector of enemy territory for mobile targets, then calls in other aircraft to attack them. While the Killer Scout “flight lead” is searching an assigned “kill box,” a second jet flies cover, keeping alert for enemy aircraft or other dangers.

The searches typically are carried out behind enemy lines, at points outside the reach of friendly ground forces. The friendlies can’t see or hit those targets, but the planes flying Killer Scout can.

Once the Killer Scout pilots find a target, they keep track of its location and guide the attack planes to the right place. But in some cases, the Killer Scout crew may attack the target themselves.

While Killer Scout was improvised during the Gulf War, it has been refined in combat, Givens said, most recently in Afghanistan and Iraq. Givens flew combat missions in the Gulf War and during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

“It’s come out of the need for us to be able to find and target our own targets,” he said. “Because the Army may or may not be in contact at that time (with enemy units). We still want to be able to engage these guys, and they tend to be mobile.”

In Killer Scout, enemy targets that might otherwise go undisturbed are instead seen and attacked.

“What this allows us to do,” said Givens, “is more effectively engage ground forces from the air … independently of friendly ground forces.”

It also saves time and reduces risk to the attacking aircraft. The Killer Scout searches a sector for potential targets, and it’s only after one is discovered that other planes are called to the kill box.

“The reason why this is valuable is, you’re most exposed to enemy threat when you’re loitering around looking for a target,” Givens said. “Those other Air Force assets are going to come in, drop on the target and leave very quickly.”

And it provides battle commanders with real-time information about a target. If aircraft are sent to a mobile target that was last seen even a few minutes earlier, it may be long gone or well-hidden by the time attack planes arrive. But Killer Scout can track the target and pinpoint it for the arriving attack flight.

At times, Killer Scout can detect what sophisticated surveillance aircraft might not.

“For example,” said Tulberg, “the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft is flying at a high altitude, but he’s still not flying over enemy targets and the U-2 can only see what it can see from its vantage point — which in some cases gives the enemy sanctuary. But by flying directly overhead with a Killer Scout, that sanctuary is taken away.”

In South Korea, the Air Force deems Killer Scout especially suited to the challenges of any future conflict on the peninsula.

The country’s numerous mountains can block electronic sensors from picking up enemy movements in South Korea’s long valley corridors.

Some “of our traditional reconnaissance sensors can’t see through mountains,” said Tulberg, “but somebody flying directly above can see what’s happening.”

The 8th Fighter Wing pilots get a detailed classroom briefing on Killer Scout missions. They study photos and other materials to familiarize themselves with standard North Korean combat vehicles and other potential targets.

“In theory,” said Capt. Ryan Inman, a Killer Scout instructor with the 35th Fighter Squadron, “we should know every type of vehicle that they’re using, or artillery piece, and if not, our intel ... will tell us, ‘This is what it looks like from the air, at different angles.’”

Flight lead pilots must complete three Killer Scout training flights to become certified. Pilots who fly as Killer Scout wingmen make a single flight to familiarize themselves with the concept.

Besides classroom and in-flight instruction, the wing’s pilots have staged mock combat scenarios in which squadrons practice working over an enemy ground formation after Killer Scout has gotten a fix on the location of enemy targets.

“During the next year,” said Tulberg, “we hope to be fully trained.”

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