The 556th Test and Evaluation Squadron is the Air Force's first operational test squadron for unmanned aircraft. It provides support to UAS operations worldwide, through force development evaluations, the development of training, tactics and procedures, systems expertise and meeting warfighters' urgent need requests.
The 556th designation was reactivated by Air Combat Command for its current mission due to its lineage and long history of surveillance and intelligence-gathering.
Established in mid-1942 as a photographic mapping squadron, being formed at Colorado Springs AAB. Components of the squadron deployed to England for combat training by the Royal Air Force; remainder of squadron received aircraft and ground training in Oklahoma.
Deployed to Algeria in early December 1942 as part of Operation Torch invasion forces, squadron becoming main source of aerial intelligence for Twelfth Air Force in North African Campaign. Supported United States Fifth Army in its drive across Algeria and during the Tunisian Campaign, 1942–1943. Flew air reconnaissance and mapping missions over Sicily and Southern Italy prior to Allied invasions during 1943.
Reassigned to Fifteenth Air Force in December 1943, flying numerous long distance reconnaissance flights over the Balkans; Occupied Europe and Nazi Germany, photographing targets for later attack by Fifteenth Air Force and Twelfth Air Force bombers. Squadron obtained intelligence about enemy fortifications, armored units, infantry concentrations and other tactical intelligence. These flights were extremely hazardous, being flown without escort and in unarmed aircraft. Squadron gradually demobilized after the German Capitulation; inactivated in Italy in the fall of 1945.
Reactivated as a Tactical Air Command Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron in 1947, being assigned to several groups, however funding and manpower shortages led to units inactivation, its assigned resources being merged into the senior 15th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron in December 1947.
The 4025th Reconnaissance Squadron was established by Strategic Air Command as a major command controlled(MAJCON) unit in the wake of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona. The unit was established after several losses of U-2 reconnaissance planes over the USSR, China and Cuba forced the United States to find the ways of learning more about Soviet S-172/SA-2 SAM systems.
The squadron was used to develop unmanned reconnaissance drones for the USAF, for use on highly hazardous missions during the Cold War. The drones were named "Lightning Bug“ and "Compass Cookie". Both used Ryan Model 124 Firebee I for reconnaissance tasks and were initially planned for operations over Cuba. However, the situation there stabilized, thus the first unit equipped with Q-2C Firebee (later developed into AQM-34) namely the squadron deployed to South Vietnam in 1966 and began flying operational missions over North Vietnam, looking for SAM-sites.
Operating from Bien Hoa AB in South Vietnam the 4025th RS soon started monitoring the work of North Vietnamese air defences and - especially - the SA-2 sites. Each mission was regularly escorted by either USAF or - in most cases - United States Navy fighters, as well as other specialized (manned) reconnaissance aircraft, such as RB-47H Stratojets of the 55th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing (SRW) for high altitude photo-reconnaissance, and - later - highly classified EB-57 Canberra Electronic aggressor aircraft (detached from Air Defense Command) used for jamming North Vietnamese radars or C-130A-II Hercules aircraft of the Pacific Air Forces 6091st Reconnaissance Squadron, deployed at Don Muang AB, in Thailand.
In 1968 the unit was reorganized as the 556th Reconnaissance Squadron, being formed from the SAC and PACAF organizations an official Air Force controlled (AFCON) squadron, being placed under the PACAF 347th Tactical Fighter Wing at Yokota AB, Japan. The squadron, however operated in a deployed status from Bien Hoa AB, South Vietnam.
All the drones were carried and started from specially modified GC-130As, MC-130AS and - finally - DC-130A and DC-130E control aircraft, each of them being equipped with systems for carriage, start, control and guidance of drones. The drones were always pre-programmed, but after release their progress was monitored and the drone controller could override the programme manually if necessary. The carrier aircraft had a console for two controller pilots equipped with all the usual flight-instruments, which read the data sent to them from the drone. All the data about the navigation, planned route, the actual flight pad and position of the drone and the carrier aircraft were feed into a single system, which showed them on one display. On their return the drones deployed a parachute and were snared by specially modified HH-3E recovery helicopters.
From 1969, first serious encounters with North Vietnamese MiG-17 and MiG-21 interceptors followed. In 1969 alone, North Vietnamese fighters - primarily MiG-21s - were scrambled no less than 540 times in order to intercept drones, claiming to have shot down ten Firebees. NVAF MiGs did score 6 kills, and some were scored by Americans - and indirectly. In May 1970, an AQM-34L was on a mission over Hanoi area, acting as a manned reconnaissance aircraft. Finishing its photo-run, the drone turned toward the Tonkin Gulf, where it was to ditch after spending its remaining fuel. Almost everything was going according to plan - down to one detail: the drone was intercepted by an MiG-21. The fighter closed and tried to shoot it down by two K-13/AA-2 Atoll air-to-air missiles. Both malfunctioned however, and the Vietnamese continued the pursuit, trying to down the drone by tackling its wing. By doing so, the NVAF pilot forgot to control his fuel reserves: after the drone fell harmlessly into the sea, his aircraft ran out of fuel. The NVAF pilot ejected while flying back toward the coast. This was the first air-to-air kill scored by an unmanned aircraft in the history of air warfare.
In addition to the drone operations, the squadron received significant amounts of intelligence operating a RB-57F Canberra from Yokota AB, Japan detached from the MAC 9th Weather Reconnaissance Wing at McClellan AFB, California. The RB-57 provided very high altitude intelligence with regards to SA-2 locations for mission planning with the Firebees.
As part of the drawdown of United States forces from South Vietnam, the 556th was officially moved to Yokota AB, Japan in 1971, although limited operations continued from Bien Hoa until 30 Jun 1972 when the squadron was inactivated.Constituted 15th Photographic Mapping Squadron on 9 June 1942
Activated on 20 June 1942
Redesignated: 15th Photographic Squadron (Heavy)
on 6 February 1943
Redesignated: 15th Combat Mapping Squadron
on 21 January 1944
Redesignated: 15th Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron
on 31 August 1944
Inactivated on 28 October 1945
Redesignated 15th Reconnaissance Squadron (Photographic) on 29 April 1947
Activated on 19 May 1947
Inactivated on 3 December 1947
Disbanded on 8 October 1948
Consolidated (19 September 1985) with the 556th Reconnaissance Squadron, which was constituted, and activated, on 15 May 1968
Organized on 1 July 1968
Inactivated on 30 June 1972
Consolidated unit redesignated 556th Tactical Intelligence Squadron but remained inactive, 19 September 1985
Redesignated 556th Test and Evaluation Squadron on 16 January 2008
Activated on 15 February 2008.
3d Photographic (later Photographic Reconnaissance and Mapping, later Photographic) Group, 20 June 1942
Attached to 5th Photographic Group from 21 November 1943
5th Photographic (later Reconnaissance) Group, 21 January 1944 – 28 October 1945
67th Reconnaissance Group, 19 May 1947
10th Reconnaissance Group, 24 July – 3 December 1947
347th Tactical Fighter Wing, 1 July 1968
6100st Air Base Wing, 15 May 1971
475th Air Base Wing, 1 November 1971 – 30 June 1972
53d Test and Evaluation Group, Detachment. 4, 15 February 2008 – present