A Kunsan Air Base F-16D pilot fires a live AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missile during a training exercise in this undated Air Force file photo.

A Kunsan Air Base F-16D pilot fires a live AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missile during a training exercise in this undated Air Force file photo. (Jeffrey Allen/U.S. Air Force)

OSAN AIR BASE, South Korea — The U.S. Air Force may have hit on a way to enable its South Korea-based fighter pilots to train with live air-to-air missiles, which they’ve been unable to do while stationed in South Korea.

U.S. 7th Air Force at Osan Air Base, which has two fighter wings on the peninsula, is weighing adoption of a training method in which pilots fire air-to-air missiles over the ocean at illumination flares that descend by parachute, officials said.

Normally, Air Force pilots travel to Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City, Fla., for live-fire missile practice in a training program called Combat Archer.

But because South Korea-based pilots have the mission of being “ready to fight tonight” should war erupt on the peninsula, the Air Force doesn’t send them to Florida for missile training. Overall budget constraints also are an obstacle, officials said.

So pilots from the Air Force’s four South Korea-based fighter squadrons tested an “expedient” training method using parachute flares as targets earlier this month over the sea about 80 miles off coastal Kunsan Air Base.

The missiles, heat-seeking AIM-9 Sidewinders, were drawn from old but usable weapons stocks that otherwise probably would be shipped back to the United States for disposal because their shelf life almost has run out, said Air Force Capt. James P. Lage, 8th Fighter Wing spokesman.

The targets were illumination flares usually used to light up a battlefield or other surface. A-10 Thunderbolt II close-support aircraft from Osan Air Base dropped the flares.

As a flare would descend, a fighter pilot would maneuver into position to attack it as if it were a hostile fighter plane, then would launch a Sidewinder.

Sixteen pilots flying either an F-16 or A-10 got to fire a missile.

“For starters, it’s confidence in your weapons system,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Dan Tippett, operations officer with the 80th Fighter Squadron at Kunsan. Tippett developed the idea with Maj. Dave Mccune, 7th Air Force weapons officer at Osan Air Base.

“If I know I can engage a target … that the missile’s going off the rail every time, it’s going to hit the target every time, there’s the confidence to allow you to be a … more confident, lethal, fighter pilot-airplane combination,” Tippett said.

The training also tests the mechanical functioning of the aircraft’s missile-launch gear and of the missiles themselves, he said.

Held Aug. 16-18, the training involved single-seat jets from four fighter squadrons: the 80th Fighter Squadron and 35th Fighter Squadron, both part of the 8th Fighter Wing at Kunsan, and, from the 51st Fighter Wing at Osan, the F-16s of the 36th Fighter Squadron and A-10s of the 25th Fighter Squadron.

“I would anticipate this happening on at least a quarterly basis” if not more frequently, Tippett said. “We demonstrated … that, yeah, we can go out and do it. It is in fact a viable and sustainable program.”

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