In Utah desert, Air Force lets the bombs fly

At the massive Utah Test & Training Range, the Air Force 'trains warriors and tests weapons,' running more than 15,000 sorties a year to ensure that bomber pilots are properly trained, and that weapons work the way they should.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
6 min read

A MUTE, or multiple threat emitter simulator, which is designed to throw up electronic challenges to pilots attempting bombing missions at the Utah Test & Training Range. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

DUGWAY, Utah--"We train warriors and test weapons."

That's how Col. Jeff Snell, the commander of the 388th Range Squadron, which operates the gargantuan Utah Test & Training Range (UTTR), summed up the main mission of his command.

I had spent the day visiting part of UTTR's Maryland-size facilities, and discovered that Snell's words were a very succinct way of explaining what really goes on at the range: Air Force pilots fly in there in screaming-fast aircraft to run bombing training missions, often in advance of deployments to either Iraq or Afghanistan, and, less frequently, the Air Force uses the facility to test out various weapons systems.

Unless you knew it was there, you wouldn't know it was there. There is so much desert in northwest Utah, much of it with small, Afghanistan-like mountains, that except in very rare cases, the public never goes anywhere near UTTR. And that means that pilots flying missions there have almost unfettered scope for firing away at their targets, often with live bombs or missiles.

Indeed, unlike other bombing ranges around the country, all of which limit the direction in which missiles can be fired, UTTR offers the Air Force no such limitations. Instead, the property is so big that in most cases, there is nothing to stop pilots from firing any which way they please.

As part of my Road Trip 2009 project, I was given a tour of part of UTTR by Maj. David Dunklee, the detachment commander there. He explained that his team--mainly made up of civilians--have four main tasks: setting up and refurbishing targets; photographing missions, with centimeter accuracy; challenging pilots on missions with all manner of electronic threats in attempts to make the missions as realistic as possible; and basic infrastructure management.

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While the first and the last of those duties are probably the most time-consuming, the most complex parts are the middle two: photography and challenging pilots during their missions.

The point of the photography component is to record every last bit of data about each and every mission that is run at UTTR, and that's a big number. According to Snell, there are about 15,000 sorties a year at UTTR, most of which are training runs. Pilots will fly all kinds of aircraft there, including the politically controversial F-22, B-1s, B-2s, F-15Es, and others.

Scattered around UTTR are small white domes called cine-theodolites. These are camera batteries in which operators are able, through very high-powered lenses, to capture imagery of elements of bombing missions, and, when combined with at least two and, ideally, three other Cine-Ts, as they're called, Dunklee's people can triangulate and create a "centimeter accuracy" record of what went on during a mission.

And that's important, because the critical part of the missions that are run at UTTR is giving decision makers, pilots and others involved in the Air Force, a way to see exactly went right and what went wrong during a mission, or with a test weapon, so that they can determine the pilot, or the weapon, are ready for prime time.

This is called "scoring" the missions, and with more than 300 targets scattered all over UTTR, it is important that Dunklee's team have infrastructure in place where and when it's needed so that every mission can be scored.

Realistic conditions
But pilots wouldn't get much out of running training bombing missions if they had free and clear access at their targets. That's why another task of the Dunklee's people is to run interference, and to, essentially, be the "bad guys," as John Bridgman, a quality assurance operator, put it. To that end, Bridgman and his colleagues are given control of systems that can transmit many different kind of threats that pilots will have to contend with as they scream over UTTR in their aircraft.

Several drones that will be used as unmanned flying targets for the pilots attempting missions at the range. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Those threats can be anything that a pilot might encounter in actual combat: shoulder-launched missiles, surface-to-air missiles, other airplanes and so on. "We throw everything we can at them," Bridgman said, trying to simulate shooting them down.

Additionally, Bridgman's team moves its equipment around so that they can "attack" from anywhere, making it impossible for pilots to learn where the threats, of which there are at least 75 different kinds, might be coming from.

Another element of presenting pilots with realistic conditions is giving them moving targets. Already, UTTR has two autonomous tanks that are capable of pulling targets around on trailers at slow speeds. But now, the Air Force is preparing to roll out a new system, a GPS and transmitter-geared-up Ford F-350 truck that is designed to pull a target around without a driver at 55 miles an hour.

The truck cost the Air Force more than $100,000, Dunklee estimated, so it's crucial that pilots not hit it. But with precision weapons, and long trailers, no one is too worried about losing the pricey vehicle to a rogue bomb. Rather, they hope, pilots will hit the inexpensive targets placed on the trailer.

At UTTR, there are other target scenarios going on than just pilots firing directly at targets. Those types of missions are intended mainly as training for the pilots. But there are also test of weapons systems such as cruise missiles. In that case, pilots of bombers like a B-52 will fly into UTTR and fire such a missile, which, in an attempt to simulate the up to four hours of flight time it might have in combat, will proceed to "spaghetti" overhead until finally zeroing on its target.

Back at Mission Control
The command center for UTTR is at Hill Air Force Base, which is north of Salt Lake City and about a two-hour drive from UTTR. There, Snell and his team, as well as any of a wide range of "customers," including personnel from the Air Force, other military services, the Defense Department, defense contractors and others can watch the missions play out in real time, thanks to Dunklee's photography team.

The various tracking systems deployed at UTTR allow those in the command center to see very accurate and up-to-the-minute data about the missions, giving them the ability to understand precisely what is happening at any given moment and, later, to make decisions based on that information.

And while the most common mission of Snell's 388th Range Squadron is training pilots who are headed for combat, it is also to evaluate new weapons systems.

In August, then, the 388th will begin a weapons systems evaluation program (WSEP) that will last for three weeks. Personnel involved in the evaluation will begin to show up at Hill up to a couple weeks early for preparation. A WSEP, Snell said, is designed to produce an end-to-end examination of a weapons program, of everyone involved in it, and of their ability to react to conditions on the ground.

All told, given how many people are involved, both at UTTR and at Hill, how many bombs are dropped annually and how many sorties are flown there, it's amazing that the Air Force is able to pull it all off without the general public even knowing it is going on in their backyard.

But that's the advantage provided by a piece of land that is protected by mountains on several sides and which is the size of the state of Maryland. And while there have certainly been deadly cases of miscalculation in airborne attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Air Force feels that those who train at UTTR are as well-prepared as a pilot can be before heading off into combat.

On June 22, Geek Gestalt will kick off Road Trip 2009. After driving more than 12,000 miles in the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest and the Southeast over the last three years, I'll be looking for the best in technology, science, military, nature, aviation and more in Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota, and Colorado. If you have a suggestion for someplace to visit, drop me a line. And in the meantime, join the Road Trip 2009 Facebook page and follow my Twitter feed.