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US Air Force upgrading missile retriever boats

US Air Force missile retriever boats are docked in East Bay near Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida. Photo: US Air Force

The US Air Force’s Tyndall air base is making progress on a $5.1 million project to revamp three missile retriever boats assigned to the 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron.

The 82nd ATRS, a tenant unit at Tyndall belonging to the 53rd Wing, operates the Department of Defense’s only full-scale aerial target program and also specializes in the recovery of BQM-167 subscale drones.

The 82nd ATRS’ missile retriever boats’ purpose is to support range safety and salvage operations by recovering BQM-167 subscale drones. These small remote controlled aircraft are recovered from the Eastern Gulf of Mexico after they have been shot down in a process testing weapon capabilities.

Due to the age of the boats, originally manufactured in 1988, it was determined they could be remodeled to increase speed and fuel efficiency, while also preserving their combat assurance capability.

“When a drone lands in the water, the location is given to us by the E-9A Widget aircraft and we [move to that location],” explained Kevin Heath, 82nd ATRS contract manager. “It is important that we get to the drone as fast as possible. The sooner we can get there, the more likely we are to find the drone and return it to the [base].”

Time is an important factor in the boats’ mission as the drones can drift away from the identified location or in some cases sink all together. Even if the drone is damaged, repurposing the drone will save the Air Force money in the future, making their recovery vital for upcoming operations.

Photo: US Air Force

With the upgraded vessels, the 82nd ATRS can now travel at speeds around 30 knots, which is 10 knots faster than before, enabling a more efficient recovery. Investing in the missile retriever boats’ is also a step in the right direction towards a greener Air Force, as the new engines are better for wildlife and the local community.

“Similar to comparing older cars to newer cars, the new engines do not burn through as much oil and are much more fuel efficient,” said Heath. “The emissions are much cleaner as well, making our job less taxing for the environment in the long run.”

Finally shipping the boats off to undergo modernization is a project that is more than eight years in the making as the 325th Contracting Squadron searched to find the best economical route for the vessel’s redesign.

“To avoid a costly refurbishment with the original equipment manufacturer, the 325th CONS championed a $5.1 million competitive reverse engineering effort,” said Lt. Col. Kenneth Haile, 325th CONS commander. “This injected competition resulted in multiple offers and led to approximately $2.5 million in savings.”