Train Like You Fight: Updating America’s Adversary Fleet
If the U.S. Air Force is committed to maintaining its edge over peer competitors, it should strengthen and modernize its training adversary force. Currently, the professional adversary force, known as the “Aggressors,” is made up of only two squadrons of the oldest, least advanced F-16s in the fleet and one squadron with a handful of early production F-35s. To meet even basic training requirements, operational fighter units must either use themselves, and cannibalize readiness and poach precious airframe life by simulating adversaries, or they must train against a mix of older, privately owned aircraft not consistent with contemporary threats. The Air Force is aware of this problem and has invested money in low-observable unmanned vehicles and augmented reality to improve training and to simulate aggressor aircraft. However, these technologies and required infrastructure are not yet mature, and the slow pace of Air Force acquisitions suggest that these solutions are at least a decade away from being used widely in the operational fleet.
Readiness to fight a peer competitor requires validating tactics and technology in a realistic training environment. Accurate threat simulation is the key to a realistic environment. The technology to produce low-observable aircraft has proliferated, allowing for adversaries like China and Russia to develop and deploy aircraft similar to the F-35. The Chinese Air Force, in particular, is now deploying two stealth fighters — the J-20 and J-31 — and has announced plans for the production of H-20 stealth bomber. Further, there is speculation that Beijing seeks to use low-observable drones to “team” with their manned counterparts during air combat. As threats have evolved, the Air Force should follow suit so that its training remains the world’s standard and upgrade the platforms that it uses to simulate its adversaries.
One solution to this issue is for the Air Force to use a large quantity of its F-117A stealth fighters that were retired in 2008, and then placed into flyable storage, as a near-term solution to replicate China’s latest fighters for operational fighter units. To keep costs down for the Air Force, the available F-117As could be contractor operated under a government-furnished property agreement and be split into two separate detachments. One detachment, based at Tyndall Air Force Base or Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, could service east coast fighter squadrons, while the other detachment could be based on the west coast and service west coast fighter squadrons. The use of this aircraft would save the airframe life of current F-35 and F-22 aircraft, increase the quality of training for the Air Force, and reduce the cost of maintaining readiness for operational fighter units.
Mitigating Tactical and Operational Hubris
The Air Force often uses technology as a benchmark to judge the severity of the threat from an adversary. However, technology in warfare is only as useful as the human understanding of its limitations, strengths, and weaknesses — and each technology has a means of being exploited. In aerial combat, much like any other type of combat, the human adversary is the wildcard that often makes the difference between success and failure. The Air Force learned about the importance of realistic training during the Vietnam War. During this conflict, the United States lost approximately 10,000 aircraft in combat. American fighter pilots experienced high losses and a low kill ratio against, from the American perspective, a lesser equipped, less technologically advanced foe. This was a stark contrast to high kill ratios achieved during the Korean War. The unexpected results raised concerns that if NATO were sent to battle the Soviet Union’s armed forces, the losses may be grievous.
The poor performance stemmed from many factors, including technology failures and low pilot proficiency with new aircraft and systems. Air-to-air missiles performed worse than expected and Air Force fighter pilots used the obsolete Korean War formations and tactics taught at the service’s prestigious Fighter Weapons School during the Vietnam War. The cause of this was deeply rooted in how culture impacted training. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, led by Strategic Air Command, the Air Force emphasized the importance and likelihood of nuclear war and a “zero defect” flying safety culture wherein peacetime force preservation was the number one priority. Innovation in the Air Force meant innovation solely by technology. Pilots mitigated risk by following strict checklists and avoiding any type of dangerous flying, such as low-level training or close-in, air-to-air combat.
The high loss rates of Air Force fighters in Vietnam prompted a number of studies and reports and several causal factors came to light. However, it wasn’t until after the high Israeli losses in the Yom Kippur War of 1973 that the lack of realistic training and a realistic test environment received enough attention for change. A group of Air Force combat veterans, known as the “iron majors,” advocated for a professional adversary force and a realistic training environment. They argued that technology, while useful, had limits and nothing prevented an enemy from adapting to American tactical and technological innovation. Therefore, pilots needed to not only train against dissimilar threat aircraft, but also be tactically familiar with living in the “extremes” of high and low altitude flying and aggressive maneuvering in order to survive in combat.
The combination of internal advocates for reform and the losses in Vietnam did lead to change, beginning with the birth of Red Flag, a large force exercise designed to realistically simulate the challenges of large air operations. The Air Force’s Fighter Weapons School was also completely overhauled in order to build an instructor corps that could focus training units more realistically.
For the pilots, the biggest change was the creation of the Aggressors — a professional adversary force who are experts in threat hardware and tactics. The aircraft initially selected was the T-38 which was comparable to the MiG-21 in performance. As Soviet aircraft matured, the Air Force used the F-16 and F-15 to simulate the MiG-29 and Su-27 — two of Russia’s most advanced fighters at the end of the Cold War. The use of realistic threats and realistic training environments was a major contributor in the Air Force’s superb performance in the Gulf War.
Budget Cuts and the Demands of the War on Terror
Throughout the Global War on Terror, the aggressor fleet was downsized and remained largely static in capability. The decision to decrease the number of adversary platforms stemmed from border budgetary decisions made after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the decision to decrease the total number of Air Force squadrons. As concerns about peer competitors have grown, the Air Force has once again sought to augment its aggressor squadrons. However, as of now, there are only three aggressor squadrons and they operate some of the oldest aircraft in the fleet with the least capable sensors – and they have only 11 low-rate initial production F-35As currently being used to simulate the latest Chinese and Russian fighters.
The Air Force’s aggressor squadrons, based at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada and Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska, are frequently only used in large exercises in Nevada and Alaska or training at the Air Force Weapons School. This means that the average fighter pilot may only train against them once a year or less — equivalent to a handful of hours per year. The Air Force has sought ways to facilitate an adversary force for fighter training in front-line units. There are two main methods of doing this, but there are significant downsides to each. The first, and most widely utilized, way is to generate a simulated adversary organically. This means that fighter squadrons use their own fighters and pilots to simulate opponents. The practice is widespread because it is easy to do. However, the problem is that it undermines unit readiness because front line pilots have to devote time to flying as adversaries rather than training to fly the tactics needed to defeat or defend against these adversaries. This practice also needlessly increases airframe fatigue.
Each operational fighter unit has a designed operational capability statement that defines what missions the unit must train to. Units also have a Ready Aircrew Program that outlines the combination of missions and sorties that each person must fly per month to meet proficiency standards. When squadrons use their own jets and pilots to simulate adversary aircraft, this increases the overall number of squadron sorties required, which then accelerates airframe fatigue. For example, if a squadron were to fly 16 sorties in one day, approximately half of those may be as adversaries, which would leave only eight sorties that contribute toward unit readiness. From a value perspective, the cost of training a pilot for the primary mission is then twice the amount of cost per hour. Even at large force exercises, such as Red Flag, the Air Force’s dedicated aggressors may be stretched so thin that operational units must often give up training sorties and pilots to fill adversary air requirements. With only a finite amount of sorties available, units often struggle to make the minimum proficiency or accomplish the amount of qualification upgrades required. This is costly as expensive jets, like the F-22 and F-35, need to be flown nearly twice as much to get only half the amount of training for the pilots.
To make matters worse, many frontline aircraft are in need of modifications and maintenance that may require weeks or even months of downtime. Nevertheless, squadrons are still required to maintain readiness, so aircraft that are not going through modifications are flown much more frequently — which, in turn, leads to more broken jets and a backlog of maintenance requirements. The result is a vicious cycle that unfairly stresses maintenance units, which are already critically undermanned, while also decreasing operational readiness.
The second method, partially created to address the issues with organic adversary air, is to use contractors. In 2019, the Air Force announced a $6.4 billion contract called the Combat Air Force Contracted Air Support program for private industry to fill the adversary role with an assortment of third generation airframes, such as A-4s and L-159s. This program is largely focused at providing support for units aimed at fighter pilot production, and is not necessarily used for front-line units. This fills a vital requirement for the basic level of training where students are still learning how to fly and operate sensors at the same time and any simulated adversary will suffice. For the Air Force’s experienced pilots, however, the use of these older jets does little for the training requirements of a “high-end” fight. The lack of high-end opponents was a large reason why the Air Force chose not to renew its private adversary air contract at Nellis Air Force Base this past year.
An Immediate Solution
After years of outstanding service, the F-117A Stealth Fighter fleet was officially retired in 2008. While a few have been spotted still flying around, the majority are in storage and can be returned to flying status in a short amount of time. The F-117A is a deceptively simple airframe and it can be used to simulate threats with a low radar cross section. This is a feature that the current fleet of F-5, F-16, and F-15 fighters simply cannot replicate. Unlike the F-117A, these fighters are also easily detected by modern radars. Pilots need to practice finding stealth aircraft, which is hard to do, and demands constant tactical evolution and practice. Tactics that would otherwise work against non-stealth aircraft may not work against the types of low-observable aircraft that China now operates.
The F-117A represents one of the most innovative pieces of aircraft technology known to the public. It found its way to life when a 36 year-old Lockheed mathematician named Denys Overholser stumbled upon a technical paper written by the chief Soviet scientist at the Moscow Institute of Radio Engineering. While the Soviet leadership dismissed the paper’s value, Overholser used it to accurately calculate radar reflectivity against various shapes. Due to the processing power of early computers, the design consisted of two-dimensional shapes — and what we know now as the F-117A. To keep costs down, the F-117A was also designed to use readily available components, such as the flight control system from an F-16 and the non-afterburning version of F/A-18 motors. The cost to fly and upgrade the F-117A could also be kept low given that many of the spare parts needed to keep it flying are sourced from aircraft still flying in the U.S. Navy and Air Force inventories.
To mitigate the personnel and support impact, the F-117As could also be returned to service and operated under a government-furnished property agreement to allow a contractor to operate the aircraft while the government retains ownership. This is particularly advantageous because the Air Force has experienced a fighter pilot requirement shortfall for the past 16 years. Rather than using active-duty pilots to fly the F-117As, the Air Force could use contractors to address the readiness issue and partially address the pilot capacity issue. The more capable, low-observable airframes allow operational fighter squadrons to benefit while current private adversary air contractors focus on training pilots in basic training, or as they move from basic training to their first squadrons.
There is no doubt that projects such as the unmanned adversary air concept will alleviate some of these issues and build a better trained force. From increasing the sheer quantity of threats to leveraging artificial intelligence to challenge operational and tactical concepts, unmanned red air has untapped potential. However, in the near term these unmanned aircraft will have difficulty integrating into the majority of training airspace used by operational units. Future solutions, like integrated simulators or even augmented reality, will certainly help, but they both have realistic training limitations and the technology will take time to mature. The Air Force needs capability and quantity now.
Breathing new life into the F-117A would fill a critical capability gap in the Air Force’s adversary force while technology such as unmanned adversary air matures. This would ultimately increase capacity and capability in the operational fleet as well as increase readiness.
Ryan Fishel is an F-15E pilot and Distinguished Flying Cross recipient. The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or viewpoints of the U.S. Air Force or Department of Defense.