Airmen tasked with getting bombs from bunker to jet during war games in S. Korea
By MARCUS FICHTL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 7, 2017
OSAN AIR BASE, South Korea — Rows and rows of earthen bunkers filled to the brim with bombs sit in a small corner at Osan Air Base, the U.S. Air Force’s headquarters in South Korea.
The 285 airmen of the 51st Munitions Squadron are tasked with getting them from bunker to jet during annual war games known as Vigilant Ace, weeklong joint Air Force drills that began Monday in South Korea.
“We provide munitions capability to the flight line,” said Capt. Daniel Crouch, 51st Munitions operations officer, calling the exercise the squadron’s “World Series.”
That means supplying 30mm rounds to the monstrous guns of the A-10 Thunderbolt II and filling the Warthogs and F-16s with defensive countermeasures like flares in between exercises, said the 30-year-old from Richmond, Va.
The airmen also practice building the heavy stuff, everything from laser-guided 500-pound bombs to hulking 2,000-pound “bunker busters.”
The live bombs built this week won’t be dropped — they won’t even leave the bomb pads, Crouch said.
Instead, blue colored inert bombs will be loaded onto the planes. The yellow-tipped live bombs will be torn down at the end of the week and readied to be reassembled for the next exercise. Live munitions are generally dropped only in the United States at exercises like Red Flag in Alaska.
At the bomb pads, groups of eight to 10 airmen dressed head to toe in chemical protective gear and combat armor piece together bombs and other munitions assembly-line style, adding fuses and guidance systems.
“We can build these in 10 to 15 minutes,” said Staff Sgt. Justin Hibbard, pointing to a row of 500-pound Guided Bomb 54s, which have both GPS and laser-guidance systems. It made its combat debut in Iraq in 2008.
“We can guide this to wherever it needs to go,” said Hibbard, 28, of Indianapolis.
Airman Ezequiel Acosta, just six months on the job, said he’s already had his hand in the construction of about 200 bombs and is proud of his handiwork.
“I build bombs for a living; how many people can say that?” said the Colts Neck, N.J., native.
The squadron’s headquarters on this base about 30 miles south of Seoul is decked out for war to make it as realistic as possible.
Massive maze-like barricades surround the building, protecting it from artillery fire. A specially designed airlock keeps a team of controllers tracking the movement of hundreds of pieces of ordnance safe from chemical attack. Racks of M16s sit ready in case of a final last stand.
Crouch declined to say how many bombs are produced in a given year, citing operational security. But he said the squadron can outfit jets from other branches, including the Navy’s EA-18 Growler, which is at Osan during Vigilante Ace.
They could also outfit South Korean jets with approval from U.S. Forces Korea, he said.
As a rotational unit with roughly yearlong tours, the exercise includes new people each year, which poses a unique challenge to the Air Force in South Korea.
“At a stateside base, a lot of people start to homestead and there’s potential for bad habits to set into place,” he said. “[In South Korea] because we’re always training on the new way to things to do things, we’re always on top of our game.”