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Once small squadron, one big mission

An F-15 Strike Eagle fires a missile during a Weapon System Evaluation Program mission. During the WSEP, the 83rd Fighter Weapons Squadron evaluates the total air-to-air weapons systems, including aircraft, weapon delivery systems, weapons, aircrews, support equipment, technical data and maintenance actions. (Courtesy Photo)

An F-15 Strike Eagle fires a missile during a Weapon System Evaluation Program mission. During the WSEP, the 83rd Fighter Weapons Squadron evaluates the total air-to-air weapons systems, including aircraft, weapon delivery systems, weapons, aircrews, support equipment, technical data and maintenance actions. (Courtesy Photo)

TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- The Air Force has a mission to fly, fight and win. To carry out that mission, the people at the 83rd Fighter Weapons Squadron ensure the weapons the Air Force uses remain effective.

The 83rd FWS, with only 70 members, conducts the Air Force Air-to-Air Weapon System Evaluation Program. They evaluate the total air-to-air weapons systems, including aircraft, weapon delivery systems, weapons, aircrews, support equipment, technical data and maintenance actions.

"We basically perform consumer reports," said Lt. Col. Matt Bradley, 83rd FWS commander. "We take a plane and weapon out of the combat Air Force and evaluate them. We then report our data to the Chief of Staff of the Air Force. We ensure that all of our weapon capabilities are where they should be."

The squadron hosts over 30 air-to-air WSEP deployments annually from units all over including units from Canada and Singapore. The annual firing of over 300 missiles evaluates all Air Force and Navy air-to-air missile capabilities. They also evaluate and test air-to-air guns; firing over 100,000 rounds per year.

Squadron personnel verify weapon system performance, determine reliability, evaluate capabilities and limitations, identify deficiencies, recommend corrective actions, and maintain combat Air Force-wide data.

Evaluators from the maintenance side of the 83rd FWS start the assessment the moment the visiting unit arrives.

"It is a cradle to grave process for the maintainer's; from the moment the unit steps in to the moment they complete their WSEP," said Master Sgt. Brian O'Connor, 83rd FWS avionics evaluator. "We watch for safety and evaluate every aspect from the technical order to equipment and personnel."

Maintainers with the 83rd FWS stretch across several Air Force Specialty Codes; including weapons, avionics, crew chiefs, aerospace ground equipment and ammo.  They evaluate more than 2,000 visiting maintenance per year.

The telemetry flight in the 83rd FWS is responsible for bringing all the data from the fired missile in for processing and distribution to analysts. They are the first step in which the data travels.

"We evaluate how well missiles we have used for 10 or 20 years perform in the current times," said Grant Burris, 83rd FWS technical advisor. "To do that, we need to determine the health of the missile through all of its stages, from the time it is loaded into the aircraft until it is fired."

Before the WSEP, the warheads are removed from the missile and replaced with an instrumentation pack, which broadcasts a signal much like WIFI. This allows them to view up to 15,000 parameters that can be viewed in real time. Even before the aircraft leaves the runway, the missile is being monitored.

"Once the jet is in the air, we monitor the whole flight," said Burris. "As it approaches the target, we monitor both the missile and the aerial target. This allows us to maneuver the target and avoid damage to our drones if needed."

Program managers are the pilots who fly alongside the unit getting evaluated. They also act as the liaison between visiting units, the director of operations and their commander.

"We are the ones who authorize the shot and maintain the airspace," said Maj. Nicholas Suppa, 83rd FWS F-15E Strike Eagle program manager. "Throughout the flight, we fly alongside the shooter. We are similar to a range safety officer in a gun range."

The program managers also take input from the combat Air Force units. They visit the units about a month before the evaluation to brief local procedures, ensure the unit knows what to bring and what is being evaluated to make sure they understand the flow of events throughout the evaluation, Suppa added.

"At least 50 percent of shooters that participate in the WSEP have never fired a missile. It is important to give these pilots the experience of what it feels like to fire a live weapon," Bradley said.

This also gives the visiting maintainers the experience of loading live weapons onto the aircraft.

"Without any of these pieces, we would not be able to accomplish what we need," said Bradley. "We are a very diverse squadron. We work hand in hand with the 325th Fighter Wing to ensure our mission and the mission of the Air Force gets accomplished."