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Air Force Featured Stories

82nd Aerial Target Squadron’s watercraft prove critical in Air Force mission

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Lindsey Heflin
  • 53rd Wing

The 82nd Aerial Target Squadron has the unique mission of providing aerial targets for testing Defense Department and foreign partners’ weapon systems.

This is done by providing subscale and full-scale drones that allow multiple DoD entities to employ live weapons, including pilots involved in the Weapons System Evaluation Program. These pilots get to experience combat maneuvering and firing live missiles at targets, shooting them out of the sky over the Gulf.

The mission, however, doesn’t end when the target is shot out of the sky.

Part of the 82nd ATRS’s mission is to clear the waterborne corridor using missile retriever boats for target launch and recovery, as well as to remove drones and aircraft debris post-launch.

One of the common targets the 82nd ATRS employs and recovers is the BQM-167A, a high-performance, remote controlled, subscale aerial target. This target is mainly used to support the 53rd Wing’s air-to-air WSEP.

At the cost of roughly $970,000 per drone, the BQM-167A can carry a variety of equipment such as infrared and radar pods, electronic attack pods, and chaff-and-flare dispenser sets. After completing its mission, the drone’s regeneration prepares the target for its next mission.


By recovering these expensive targets and the pods they carry, 82nd watercraft have a very high return on investment for our operation and ultimately the American taxpayer,” said Lt. Col. Dave Magnuson, 82nd ATRS commander. “Additionally, at 120 feet long and 110 tons, they are fairly imposing vessels which helps them clear near-shore vessels from target launch and recovery corridors, ensuring the safety of civilian maritime traffic.”

Averaging 14 target recoveries per year, the squadron provides all U.S. Air Force aerial target support for the DoD and international partners in the Eglin Gulf Test and Training Range.

“Our vessels depart the docks three hours prior to drone launch,” said Kevin Brackin, 82nd ATRS subscale aerial targets program analyst. “The drones have a locater beacon, which is activated when the drone lands in the Gulf of Mexico. By using the Retriever Radio Directional Finder aboard the vessel, crews are able to follow the direction of the signal inside the drone.”

The main difficulties the boat crews encounter are strong winds and Gulf Stream currents, making nighttime recoveries especially dangerous with severe marine weather events, like squalls, high sea states, dense fog and lightning. Another concern is the marine life; jellyfish and sharks being the most common dangers to the divers.

Despite these obstacles, 202 subscale aerial targets have been recovered since 2008.

“This crew really exemplifies the ‘Excellence in all we do,’” Magnuson said. “Their professionalism and success rate speak to their commitment to the mission.”