Rental Bad Guys
The USAF’s Contract Killers
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.
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)