Rental Bad Guys

The USAF’s Con­tract Killers

Flight Journal - - CONTENTS - By Brick Eisel

The USAF’s Con­tract Killers

“Kill the F-16, right-hand turn, 18 thou­sand feet, over the Farms.” And so an­other vic­tory is claimed in the per­pet­ual war oc­cur­ring in the Ne­vada skies north of Las Ve­gas. It is not part of some sep­a­rat­ing-a-tourist-from-his-money air­com­bat ex­pe­ri­ence but the deadly game of “good guy” Blue Air jets fight­ing the “bad guy” Red Air forces of a pro­fes­sional ad­ver­sary-forhire serv­ing the needs of Amer­ica’s mil­i­tary.

While “speed is life” is an­other cliché that di­rectly re­lates to dog­fight­ing, it isn’t ev­ery­thing. Tac­tics, prac­tice, and good equip­ment are other vi­tal com­po­nents in keep­ing the sharp end of the spear pointy.

Com­bat Train­ing Is Ex­pen­sive but Nec­es­sary

Some au­to­mo­tive writ­ers have said, tongue in cheek, that the fastest car in the world is an air­port rental car due to the in­dif­fer­ence to­ward said car by most of its driv­ers. The same can­not be said, how­ever, when it comes to rent­ing a pro­fes­sional “bad guy” to train an air force in mod­ern air com­bat. While “speed is life” is an­other cliché that di­rectly re­lates to dog­fight­ing, it isn’t ev­ery­thing. Tac­tics, prac­tice, and good equip­ment are other vi­tal com­po­nents in keep­ing the sharp end of the spear pointy.

How­ever, the costs of buy­ing and main­tain­ing good equip­ment and zeal­ously prac­tic­ing said tac­tics con­tinue to sky­rocket (pun in­tended). For the U.S. Depart­ment of De­fense as well those for other Western na­tions, those es­ca­lat­ing costs re­sult in dras­tic cuts in the num­bers and types of com­bat air­craft, in­clud­ing those ded­i­cated to pro­vid­ing re­al­is­tic, think­ing ad­ver­sary train­ing to fighter pi­lots who might face the real thing one day.

Fol­low­ing the Viet­nam con­flict, the U.S. Air Force (USAF) and Navy stud­ied the prob­lems their pi­lots faced fly­ing against what should have been con­sid­ered a “sec­ond-string” ad­ver­sary: the Viet­nam Peo­ple’s Air Force (VPAF).

The VPAF, how­ever, gave a good ac­count­ing of it­self by reach­ing par­ity of kills to losses dur­ing some pe­ri­ods of the war—the fi­nal kill ra­tio of USAF/VPAF be­ing 2:1 ver­sus a claimed 12:1 U.S. kills/losses dur­ing World War II and about 8:1 in Korea.

Prac­tice Is the Name of the Com­bat Game

One of many lessons learned from that sober­ing statis­tic was the need for the good guys to prac­tice against a force that could re­al­is­ti­cally sim­u­late the most likely ad­ver­saries the United States might face in fu­ture con­flicts. The Air Force formed “the Ag­gres­sors,” which by the mid1980s in­cluded squadrons of spe­cially trained pi­lots fly­ing the light, nim­ble Northrop F-5.

The Ag­gres­sors lived, breathed, and flew ex­pected Soviet-style tac­tics and ma­neu­vers. By study­ing the lat­est in­tel­li­gence re­ports, in­ter-

view­ing other na­tions’ pi­lots who flew against Soviet-trained proxy clients, and con­stantly prac­tic­ing such tac­tics, the USAF built a ro­bust, highly ef­fec­tive sim­u­lated “enemy” force. The ad­ver­saries trained Amer­i­can and other Al­lied forces in Europe, the Pa­cific, and the birth­place of the Ag­gres­sors: at Nel­lis Air Force Base, Ne­vada, home of the fa­mous Red Flag ex­er­cises. Be­ing an Ag­gres­sor pi­lot was a highly cov­eted mark of pro­fes­sional ex­cel­lence within the un­for­giv­ing world of mil­i­tary avi­a­tion. It still is to­day.

Then the Soviet Union col­lapsed and de­fense bud­gets fell as well. One ca­su­alty of the cuts was the de­ac­ti­va­tion of those Ag­gres­sor units in Europe and the Pa­cific. Only Nel­lis’s 64th Ag­gres­sor squadron (64 AGRS) re­mained. Un­for­tu­nately, the ex­pected peace among mankind didn’t re­main, and to­day, the world re­mains a danger­ous place. Re­con­sti­tut­ing a much larger pro­fes­sional Ag­gres­sor force was deemed too ex­pen­sive af­ter the mil­i­tary draw­down. An ad­di­tional squadron, the 18th AGRS, was formed in Alaska, but to­day, only the two squadrons, fly­ing the oldest F-16s in the Air Force’s in­ven­tory, are ex­pected to meet the train­ing needs of not only the USAF but also many al­lies. Buy­ing, op­er­at­ing, and main­tain­ing an ac­tive-duty fighter squadron isn’t in­ex­pen­sive. Ne­ces­sity, there­fore, opened up some com­mer­cial busi­ness op­por­tu­ni­ties.

In a re­cent speech, a se­nior Air Force gen­eral noted that the need for a larger, ded­i­cated Ad­ver­sary Air ca­pa­bil­ity is only go­ing to in­crease. Thou­sands of sor­ties to train to­day’s young tigers are des­per­ately needed in both air- to-air and air-to-ground mis­sions. Those sor­ties sim­ply can’t be filled by the Ag­gres­sor forces wear­ing a uni­form. The an­nual dol­lar amount es­ti­mated to fill this short­fall is in the range of $400 mil­lion per year. De­spite the stag­ger­ing dol­lar amount, it is still less ex­pen­sive to rent the ser­vice than buy more mil­i­tary jets and hire peo­ple for only a train­ing role.

Ag­gres­sors for Hire

Nu­mer­ous com­pa­nies formed to fill the need (see side­bar on page 42). To meet the re­quire­ment of pro­vid­ing high-per­for­mance air­craft ca­pa­ble of sim­u­lat­ing any ex­pected ad­ver­sary, these com­pa­nies scoured the world for re­tired or sur­plus fight­ers and at­tack air­craft. In­deed, one mil­i­tary air­craft man­u­fac­turer is of­fer­ing its cur­rent fighter as a so­lu­tion to this par­tic­u­lar prob­lem.

The civil­ian-owned air­craft aren’t just part of the war­bird airshow cir­cuit. They are, in fact, small air forces com­plete with squadrons of pi­lots, main­te­nance pro­fes­sion­als, and the sup­port staff re­quired to op­er­ate such a fleet. Al­though un­der strin­gent mil­i­tary and Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion (FAA) rules, they also aren’t neutered, de­mil­i­ta­rized air­craft. They have po­tent on­board radars, can—and do—drop

Buy­ing, op­er­at­ing, and main­tain­ing an ac­tive-duty fighter squadron isn’t in­ex­pen­sive. Ne­ces­sity, there­fore, opened up some com­mer­cial busi­ness op­por­tu­ni­ties.

ord­nance, and op­er­ate in the swirling mix of dog­fights with cur­rent mil­i­tary jets.

One (but not the only) such com­pany is Draken In­ter­na­tional. Al­though it is based in Florida, it has de­tach­ments across the coun­try and with other na­tions. With equip­ment rang­ing from sub­sonic ground at­tack jets to su­per­sonic fight­ers, Draken works with clients around the world. Other com­pa­nies op­er­ate equip­ment rang­ing from tur­bo­prop light at­tack air­craft as well as for­mer mil­i­tary fight­ers. One com­pany, Air­borne Tac­ti­cal Ad­van­tage Com­pany, also pro­vides in­struc­tion to na­tional air forces us­ing the clients’ Sukhoi Su-27 and Lock­heed Martin’s F-16. Com­pa­nies in the United King­dom and Europe are also en­ter­ing the com­pet­i­tive ad­ver­sary mar­ket.

It’s a For­mal, Reg­i­mented Op­er­a­tion

Kevin “Flash” Gor­don is a Draken pi­lot and rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the small yet grow­ing field of pro­fes­sional com­mer­cial ad­ver­sary-air busi­ness. The for­mer com­man­der of the 64th AGRS, Gor­don brings thou­sands of hours of F-16 ex­pe­ri­ence to the prob­lem, teach­ing com­bat skills to less-ex­pe­ri­enced air­crews. Those hours would have been lost to train­ing the next gen­er­a­tion if he’d gone to the air­lines.

Says Gor­don, “Sure, I could be mak­ing more money if I’d gone air­line and been with them for sev­eral years, but that kind of fly­ing isn’t for me. Noth­ing wrong with it and I’m not knock­ing it, but fly­ing the A-4K and the L-159 here at Nel­lis lets me still fly fast and help train the new guys com­ing along. That means a lot to me.”

As would be ex­pected, a con­tract Red Air unit op­er­ates very much like the cus­tomers’ fighter unit. The pi­lots train in their jets, main­tain FAA cur­ren­cies, study emerg­ing tac­tics and weapon sys­tems, and in­ter­act nearly seam­lessly with their ac­tive-duty coun­ter­parts.

“Sure, I could be mak­ing more money if I’d gone air­line and been with them for sev­eral years, but that kind of fly­ing isn’t for me. Noth­ing wrong with it and I’m not knock­ing it, but fly­ing the A-4K and the L-159 here at Nel­lis lets me still fly fast and help train the new guys com­ing along. That means a lot to me.”

“When it’s a big mis­sion and the 64th is part of the Red side, they lead the mis­sion as MiG One. We at­tend the mass brief where both sides, Blue and Red, dis­cuss the over­all mis­sion— weather, NOTAMS, airspace, fre­quen­cies—all the ad­min stuff. Then the Red Air side breaks off for their own brief­ing, and we dis­cuss the train­ing ob­jec­tives de­sired and the tac­tics and equip­ment we are sup­posed to be em­u­lat­ing. We present dif­fer­ent ‘looks’ to the other side, de­pend­ing on what they are train­ing against.

“We aren’t just ‘un­think­ing’ train­ing aides, how­ever. Our job—both the ac­tive-duty Ag­gres­sors and those sup­port­ing them—is to repli­cate what an ad­ver­sary might be ex­pected to do. Dif­fer­ent coun­tries fly dif­fer­ent equip­ment and op­er­ate dif­fer­ently tac­ti­cally, and we have to be able to han­dle all those dif­fer­ent facets.

“From there, we suit up and step to the jets, take off, and head to the airspace.”

De­fend the Tar­get!

When in­ter­viewed, Gor­don had just fin­ished a mis­sion where 16 Red Air—eight 64th AGRS F-16s, four Draken A-4Ks, and four Draken L-159s—had gone against two F-22s and four F-15s, which were prac­tic­ing a de­fen­sive counter-air mis­sion. In other words, the “good guys” had to de­fend their turf against the Red

Air bomb­ing their flag on the ground.

For 30 fu­ri­ous min­utes, the 22 jets swirled over the bleak, brown desert land­scape of the Ne­vada Test and Train­ing Range (NTTR) from low level to way up high. Al­though Red Air took many losses, an A-4K even­tu­ally did get through to call “bombs away” over the tar­get. So de­spite the Blue Air forces killing many of the Red Air forces, that one mis­take deemed their mis­sion a fail­ure.

And that is ex­actly the point, as those fail­ures lead to learn­ing the lessons needed to en­sure that those mis­takes don’t hap­pen when the bombs are real and the stakes are for keeps.

One (but not the only) such com­pany is Draken In­ter­na­tional. Al­though it is based in Florida, it has de­tach­ments across the coun­try and with other na­tions. With equip­ment rang­ing from sub­sonic ground at­tack jets to su­per­sonic fight­ers, Draken works with clients around the world.

His­tory of Ad­ver­sary Air­craft

Ever since hu­mans be­gan fight­ing with air­planes, they have stud­ied the ways of the enemy to in­crease their chances of sur­vival and, ul­ti­mately, mis­sion suc­cess. To­day, na­tional mil­i­taries still study likely ad­ver­saries, still prac­tice against what is be­lieved will be the likely threats, and strive to stay alive and suc­cess­ful.

World War II

Ger­many had “Zirkus Rosar­ius.” Formed in 1943, it used cap­tured Al­lied air­craft to teach Luft­waffe fighter pi­lots the best way to de­feat the grow­ing hordes of Amer­i­can heavy bombers and fight­ers as well as the night bomber force of the Royal Air Force (RAF). With fly­ing ex­am­ples of air­craft rang­ing from P-38s, P-51s, and Spit­fires to B-24s and

B-17s, the “Cir­cus” used its re­sources to help the dwin­dling Luft­waffe forces fight more ef­fec­tively.

The Bri­tish had No.

1426 Flight, nick­named the “Rafwaffe,” to op­er­ate and study cap­tured Ger­man and

Ital­ian air­craft. Like their coun­ter­parts in Ger­many,

RAF pi­lots and sci­en­tists used nearly 70 var­i­ous

Luft­waffe air­craft to learn how to best fight against them and to de­sign coun­ter­mea­sures against some of their ad­vanced elec­tronic fea­tures, such as the air­borne radars used by Ger­man night fight­ers.

When they en­tered the war, the Amer­i­cans also learned from the Bri­tish trove of cap­tured air­craft. Prob­a­bly the most fa­mous ex­am­ple of study­ing the se­crets of a cap­tured enemy air­craft was the dis­cov­ery of a crashed Mit­subishi A6M “Zero” in the Aleu­tian Is­lands in July 1942. Re­cov­er­ing and re­pair­ing the Zero to fly­able con­di­tion, the mil­i­tary and the rapidly ex­pand­ing avi­a­tion in­dus­try wrung all the per­for­mance se­crets from the near-myth­i­cal fighter, dis­cov­er­ing that the se­cret to its famed ma­neu­ver­abil­ity came at the cost of ar­mor pro­tec­tion for the pi­lot and the fuel tanks. It could dance, but it couldn’t take a punch. The aero­dy­namic lessons were swiftly in­cor­po­rated into war-win­ning fight­ers and the tac­tics used with them.

Post­war

Dur­ing the Ko­rean War, the Mikoyan-Gure­vich MiG-15 also achieved “bo­gey­man” sta­tus. Heavy-hit­ting with 23mm and 37mm can­non, it took a fear­some toll on B-29s and on var­i­ous Al­lied fighter-bombers. Fi­nally, in 1953, a de­fec­tor flew one to South Korea, where it was flown by, among oth­ers, famed test pi­lot Chuck Yea­ger. The se­crets, good and bad, of the MiG-15 were squeezed out and dis­trib­uted to NATO pi­lots world­wide.

Dur­ing the rest of the Cold War, by means both clas­si­fied and by pay­ing in cash, a se­cret unit of USAF pi­lots op­er­ated a squadron of Soviet air­craft. Start­ing with MiG-17s and MiG-19s to the vaunted MiG-21, which took such a toll of Amer­i­can jets in Viet­nam, to nearly mod­ern­era jets like the MiG-23/27, Sukhoi Su-22 and Su-27 fight­ers were flown by “The Red Ea­gles.” The unit flew the for­mer Soviet fight­ers to learn ev­ery­thing about them but also flew them in clas­si­fied ses­sions against new Amer­i­can fighter pi­lots. For ex­am­ple, a new F-15 pi­lot would be told to be at Point X at time Y. Upon ar­rival, he would be met by a MiG-21, where the fledg­ling F-15 pi­lot would fly against the MiG un­til he learned it was not King Kong. This ex­po­sure to “buck fever” of see­ing one’s first MiG in the air was a vi­tal part of the Cold War train­ing reg­i­men.

In re­cent years, Amer­i­can and al­lied crews have flown openly against the lat­est MiG-29s and oth­ers as third-party na­tions, like In­dia, fly such equip­ment and par­tic­i­pate in the many mil­i­tary ex­er­cises held around the world.

On an­other mis­sion, Gor­don was fly­ing low in the L-159, nick­named the “Honey Badger” (looks in­no­cent and slow, yet is fe­ro­cious in a close fight), at the NTTR. Gor­don says, “My wing­man and I were fragged to be the lowalti­tude strik­ers hit­ting a tar­get de­fended by Weapons School F-16 stu­dents. We’re at 300 feet at about 400 knots and cruise in un­ob­served for nearly 50 miles and only about 20 miles un­til the tar­get.

“It was then that I heard the ra­dio call,

‘Badger Two, you’re dead.’ Ob­vi­ously, we weren’t quite so un­ob­served. I look up high at my 10 o’clock and see the F-16 who’d just smoked my wing­man try­ing to find me.

“I started a climb­ing con­ver­sion to at least negate any shots he might at­tempt so I can sur­vive and press to the tar­get. I merged with Cap­tion 5 him high-as­pect (nearly nose-to-nose) and start a turn to get across his 6.

“I hit the train­ing rule of no more than

180 de­grees of turn at low alti­tude, so I sep­a­rate for 5 miles, then turn back to­wards the tar­get.

I’d climbed dur­ing the fight, so I duck back down to 300 feet AGL, do one last radar air-toair san­i­ti­za­tion of the tar­get area be­fore go­ing into air-to-ground mode, and I get lock on my nose for about 13 miles.

“I take the shot and kill the F-16 point­de­fend­ing the tar­get, and I have an unim­peded run into the tar­get, sim­u­late re­lease, and call ‘Tar­get de­stroyed.’ I look up and I see an­other F-16 try­ing to find me. I again turn to make it a high­aspect merge, yank hard to get on his 6, and again hit the low-alti­tude train­ing re­stric­tion, but I was def­i­nitely of­fen­sive when I hit that limit.

“I turn for home and start my flow back to the Moth­er­land af­ter a suc­cess­ful mis­sion on the Red side. Fi­nal score: one F-16 ‘killed,’ one tar­get ‘de­stroyed,’ two of­fen­sive merges with Vipers— that’s a good day!” And more im­por­tant, the F-16 stu­dents learned some lessons for the next time.

What Hap­pened? Win­ners and Losers Be­cause…

A crit­i­cal part of those lessons is the all-im­por­tant de­brief­ing fol­low­ing a mis­sion. Just as the ac­tive­duty crews do, Draken pi­lots go over any air­craft prob­lems with their main­te­nance per­son­nel and re­view their radar and sen­sor tapes to en­sure that any sim­u­lated kills called or bombs dropped were valid. Then both Red and Blue forces gather for the mass de­brief­ing, where the mis­sion is re­played on a com­puter dis­play that presents a god’s-eye view of the fight.

From the de­brief­ing, both sides learn what went right and what went wrong. Long gone are the days of claim­ing a prac­tice kill, and it be­ing a case of “Yes, I did” ver­sus “No, you didn’t.” The data is gath­ered by the com­puter and laid out for all to see. But bet­ter to be em­bar­rassed in a de­brief­ing than turn into a fire­ball in some fu­ture con­flict where the stakes are the high­est.

And that is the point. Draken, along with other com­pa­nies serv­ing this small but grow­ing in­dus­try, is a for-profit com­pany. But Gor­don is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of them when he says, “I still want to con­trib­ute to the mis­sion. This is my way of do­ing so. And fly­ing fight­ers is still cool, so it’s a win-win.”

A ramp full of Draken’s ex-New Zealand Air Force A-4Ks. (Photo by Jose M. Ramos)

Kevin “Flash” Gor­don, the com­man­der of the Nel­lis AFB

64th AGRS, dur­ing his days as a “MiG-1.” (Photo cour­tesy of Kevin Gor­don)

The small, com­pact size of the A-4K is il­lus­trated, along with show­ing the en­gi­neer­ing chal­lenge of shoe­horn­ing a mod­ern APG-66 radar into the Scooter’s tiny nose. The A-4 is a wor­thy ad­ver­sary. (Photo by Ted Carl­son/ fo­to­dy­nam­ics.net)

A fine side view of the “fam­ily model” of the A-4K. (Photo by Jose M. Ramos)

Even the WW II Luft­waffe’s mark­ings and paint scheme can’t dis­guise the beau­ti­ful lines of this cap­tured Su­per­ma­rine Spit­fire. All sides of all wars eval­u­ated cap­tured enemy air­craft and used them to train their pi­lots in fight­ing them. (Photo cour­tesy of Wik­ime­dia Com­mons)

Just as a war can—and usu­ally does—oc­cur in bad weather, so too does the train­ing for it. Here, two 18th AGRS Vipers taxi un­der less-than-great con­di­tions. (Photo cour­tesy of the U.S. Air Force)

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