GRAFENWÖHR, Germany — Hellfire missiles are screaming over Grafenwöhr Training Area this week as aviators from 3rd Battalion, 159th Aviation Regiment hone their skills with their most effective downrange weapon.

On Thursday, soldiers unpacked Hellfires from crates at a Forward Arming and Refueling Point in the training area, then loaded them onto Apache attack helicopters. Armament platoon commander Chief Warrant Officer Lee Kline, 35, of New Market, Ala., and soldiers loading the missiles appeared excited about the training, which the battalion last did in Afghanistan in 2005.

"Gunnery is where armament makes their money," said Kline after his men finished loading a nearby helicopter with Hellfires.

Meanwhile, Apache crews were briefed at a nearby Tactical Operations Center on missions that would see them strike a simulated meeting of al-Qaida in Iraq leaders in the training area. Because of the missiles’ long range (nearly five miles, according to Jane’s Information Group) much of the 200-square-kilometer training area was shut down for the Hellfire shoot. Chief Warrant Officer Scott McCrosky, one of the aviators preparing to fire the missile, said the Hellfire is the Apache’s primary weapon system in Iraq, where 3-159 is headed later this year. The missiles were originally designed to take out tanks, but new "blast range" models make them effective anti-personnel weapons, he said.

"We can stand off at great distances. The enemy has no clue where we are," McCrosky said. "They can’t see us and can’t hear us, but we make them go away."

In Iraq and Afghanistan, Apache pilots must identify their target and clarify that the enemy has hostile intent or is performing a hostile act before they engage with a Hellfire, he said.

"Digging on the side of the road after midnight (is hostile intent)," he said. Another 3-159 Apache pilot, Chief Warrant Officer Scott Dibble, 29, of Cannon Falls, Minn., said he fired a Hellfire at insurgents who ran into a building in Balad, Iraq, in 2003 after a roadside bomb attack on a vehicle that killed several soldiers.

"It was the only building within about three kilometers, and we put two Hellfires in there. It was very satisfying," he recalled.

Members of the 3-159 planned to fire 50 Hellfires over three days, giving new pilots a chance to hone their skills, Dibble said. Pilots shoot the missiles in flight school, along with rockets and 30mm cannons, because they are used so much in combat to minimize collateral damage, he said.

"You always try to minimize civilian casualties," Dibble said. "The Hellfire is a very precise weapon. With the rockets, if the wind grabs them, they can go anywhere, so they are definitely not the weapon of choice."

Hellfires are guided by lasers that can be operated by another aircraft or from the ground, he said.

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Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.

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