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Noisy nighttime flights from Hill Air Force Base have become a weapon against Air Force plans to expand the number of aircraft capable of night attacks on ground targets.

A new study by the U.S. General Accounting Office - a research arm of Congress - says the Air Force is wasting money by equipping many more planes than it may need for such attacks.On top of that, the GAO said experience at Hill - which lead to cutting back on the number of planned noisy nighttime flights because of homes surrounding it - suggests the Air Force could never accomplish all the training it would need to use the planes anyway.

"An environmental assessment was conducted for Hill Air Force Base in Utah to determine if the initial (nighttime navigational system) training plan, which envisioned about 2,600 nighttime training sorties could be accomplished," the GAO report says.

"The assessment, according to Tactical Air Command officials, took three years to complete and resulted in the Air Force reducing the requested nighttime training flights from about 2,600 to the 2,200 that could be completed prior to 10 p.m."

The GAO said similar restrictions are likely at other bases, and it noted that foreign governments such as Germany have banned nighttime flying by the Air Force. So the GAO contends the Air Force may not be able to train enough to take advantage of all the night-capable aircraft it wants.

The GAO added, "In 1982, the Air Force established the need for 700 night-capable aircraft to counter the Warsaw Pact threat.

"Even though that threat has since significantly diminished and the Air Force budget has declined, the Air Force could . . . have nearly 1,000 night-capable aircraft by the year 2000."

The GAO recommended that the Air Force re-examine its plans to determine how many night-capable aircraft it really needs in the post-Cold War world, and how many it realistically can provide sufficient training for, given problems such as at Hill.