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In the September issue of the British Microlight Aircraft Association (BMAA) magazine, someone wrote in to say that whilst flying their C42, two Typhoon fighter jets passed them (one either side) a few times at high speed, at the same altitude, before flying away.

They said, when they contacted the nearest tower frequency, that they were told the military sometimes use GA as target practice (obviously they're not actually doing any 'firing').

The writer did provide some Flightradar24 screenshots to prove the incident had happened, but I wonder if ATC really told them that.

Do the military use GA for target practice?

This was all in UK uncontrolled airspace by the way.

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    $\begingroup$ If there is a link to the actual article in the magazine, this might be better suited to Skeptics (skeptics requires a notable source, hence the need for an actual article rather than just "I saw....") $\endgroup$
    – Jamiec
    Oct 9, 2023 at 14:10
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    $\begingroup$ What is BMAA magazine? $\endgroup$
    – tedder42
    Oct 9, 2023 at 15:41
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    $\begingroup$ I won't answer, as I have nothing authoritative, but many years ago I back seated on an RAF Nimrod sortie over the North Sea and they absolutely used civilian vessels as targets. Not for weapons, but as contacts to close in on, to ID using Sonar etc. It wouldn't surprise me to hear that Fast Jets do similar, though again, I doubt this is 'target practice' in any form, but rather RADAR intercepts, tracking etc though there is an obvious level of increased danger vs maritime patrol and boats $\endgroup$
    – Dan
    Oct 9, 2023 at 16:43
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    $\begingroup$ @Cloud I think what you are asking for are "intercepts" instead of "target pratice". An intercept is to guide your aircraft such that it meets up with another aircraft. Target practice is to shoot at something for practice. I very much hope that the jets in question did not shoot down GA aircraft :D. Because of this difference, you also get answer for aerial gunnery practice instead of intercepts... $\endgroup$
    – U_flow
    Oct 10, 2023 at 11:30
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    $\begingroup$ @RobbieGoodwin, that's a pretty broad and unsubstantiated accusation. Air Forces have plenty of training aids at their disposal that don't require the passive and unknowing cooperation of civilian aircraft. That's not the same as saying they may illuminate and even lock onto GA aircraft occasionally for practice, but to imply that not doing so is "shirking its responsibilities" is pretty extreme. $\endgroup$ Oct 11, 2023 at 16:37

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As for the US, they do practice intercepts on GA planes and they aren't supposed to. A F-16 was involved in a hull-loss crash due to perceived loss of control during a low-speed interception, and the mishap investigation report states:

The MFL [Mishap Flight Lead] and MP [Mishap Pilot] Failed to identify/correct risky or unsafe practices by intercepting a non-participating GA aircraft

Through the course of interviews with the mishap unit, there was a lack of consensus regarding whether the intercept of a non-participating, uncoordinated GA aircraft operating outside a MOA is a permissible training event. However, a thorough understanding of the existing training rules makes it clear that any simulated target of interest (TOI) must be non-maneuvering, or only maneuver with full coordination between the TOI, the controlling agency, and the ACA interceptors.

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    $\begingroup$ Do you have a source for the claim that "they aren't supposed to" perform practice intercepts on GA planes? $\endgroup$ Oct 11, 2023 at 17:45
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelHall Did you bother to read the bottom 75% of the answer? $\endgroup$
    – user71659
    Oct 11, 2023 at 17:45
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    $\begingroup$ I did. It doesn't say what you are claiming. In fact, "there was a lack of consensus regarding whether the intercept of a non-participating, uncoordinated GA aircraft operating outside a MOA is a permissible training event." says almost the opposite. $\endgroup$ Oct 11, 2023 at 17:54
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    $\begingroup$ I have. That pertains to maneuvering. Without a more complete discussion on training rules, one could say that intercepts on non-participating aircraft are permitted as long as they are not maneuvering. From that quote alone you cannot say "they aren't supposed to". That's the statement I am asking you to justify. $\endgroup$ Oct 11, 2023 at 19:14
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    $\begingroup$ Neither does the part in bold you referenced validate your claim that "they aren't supposed to". Failing to properly identify a risk is not the same thing as violating a policy or regulation. $\endgroup$ Oct 11, 2023 at 19:15
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I can’t speak for what Great Britain or some other government does, or what you mean by ‘target practice’. In the United States, for aerial gunnery practice, we employ a number of unmanned air vehicles as targets, most notably, the QF-16, which is a retired F-16 fighter converted for this purpose. I have never heard of light general aviation aircraft being used as targets for aerial gunnery exercises.

General aviation aircraft are sometimes used to simulate threats where the military assets interact with them, but do not fire upon them. One example are joint exercises with the civil air patrol. CAP will use Cessna 172 and 182 aircraft to intentionally violate practice TFR areas, allowing for military fighters to fly simulated intercepts. And it comes in handy, as NORAD reports hundreds of TFR violations every year; mostly people with drones, but there are occasions where some ding dong doesn’t read the NOTAMs and flies his Piper Cherokee into a presidential TFR or similar event. They are generally intercepted and handed over to law-enforcement on the ground.

It is possible as well, that military aircraft may track civilian aircraft using fire control radars in exercises for practice, similar to what was described above. I do know the military has also used civilian ground structures as practice ‘targets’ in simulated air strikes. I remember reading stories from Colonel Tony Tolin, who used to command the 37th TFW (F-117As) out of Tonopah, NV. He said that, during the 1980s, their aircraft would fly specific missions at night, targeting specific buildings or structures discussed in preflight briefs as a simulated strike mission in preparation for war. I remember one case where Mr. Tolin stated that their target is a specific cabin with a dock on the north shore of Lake Tahoe. The only thing missing was that the jets never dropped the bombs (nor did they carry any on these flights), and for additional safety, never lased civilian buildings as well.

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Aviation Meta, or in Aviation Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed. $\endgroup$
    – Ralph J
    Oct 11, 2023 at 12:43
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In the airspace I used to work, we had several Military Operations Areas (MOAs) that extended from 500 feet above ground level up to, but not including, FL180. When the military used the airspace, all IFR aircraft were routed out of/around the airspace to allow them to practice air combat maneuvering.

Nothing precluded VFR traffic from flying through an active MOA. Sometimes you would see the fighters line up on an untracked VFR target and fly pretty darn close to the VFR aircraft. We're they "targeting" the VFR? I don't know for sure, but it sure seemed like it on radar.

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    $\begingroup$ Honestly, other than violating separation (for GAs) I really dont see much of an issue with interrogating, targeting, even locking a GA aircraft to practice use of the targeting systems. Its literally just different patterns of radar sweeps. Flying too close to a non-participant? Yeah, not cool from a safety standpoint. But acquiring, and locking from 10km away? Please, do explain to me the terrible harm being done other than keeping our fighter crews trained on how to use the hundreds of millions of dollars systems their service branch strapped to their butts.... $\endgroup$
    – Tank R.
    Oct 10, 2023 at 10:41
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    $\begingroup$ @TankR. - would you be cool with someone pointing a loaded gun into your face to do some scope checks, and they pinky promise they wont shoot by accident? The militaries around the world have killed enough civilians through sheer stupidity that I would never be comfortable with nonsense like that. $\endgroup$
    – Davor
    Oct 11, 2023 at 11:15
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    $\begingroup$ @TankR. To simply avoid the negligible chance of firing on a civillian target by mistake, they are never used for target practise. Period. $\endgroup$
    – Jpe61
    Oct 11, 2023 at 16:51
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    $\begingroup$ @Davor, military aircraft do not normally carry live ammo into MOAs. They very rarely carry any live ammo anywhere in CONUS. If they do, it would be in a tightly controlled live fires exercise in a restricted area. Not a MOA with civilian traffic around. Even during coordinated large scale exercises in a MOA, (such as Red Flag) coordinators will call "knock it off" if there is an interloper. The loaded gun example you suggested simply doesn't happen. $\endgroup$ Oct 11, 2023 at 17:51
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelHall - the loaded gun is proximity itself. And also it's hilarious how many times non-live ammo turns out to be quite lively. $\endgroup$
    – Davor
    Oct 12, 2023 at 8:55

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