In a world where fighter aircraft are increasingly painted dull gray and fifth-generation in design — they are highly-capable but sadly devoid of colorful markings with their weapons secreted inside internal bays — it comes as welcome relief to military aviation followers that the US aggressor community is back on the rise. The 64th Aggressor Squadron was disbanded in 2014 and its stunning F-15Cs were dispersed to other squadrons. However, the rise in demand for professional adversaries to tax front line squadrons and get them ready to meet near peer threats means that both military and contracted aggressors are expanding en masse.
This team of ‘bad guys’ not only provides squadron fighter pilots with the realistic enemy force they need to train against, but also injects a welcome range of exciting schemes and types. Contractors such as Draken International are flying smart A-4 Skyhawks and will soon operate exotically-painted Mirage F1s and Denel Cheetahs. Textron-owned ATAC is also set to start Mirage operations in the US shortly.
At Nellis AFB, Nevada, in particular, the resident 64th Aggressor Squadron’s F-16Cs are now being routinely supplemented by the 18th AGRS ‘Vipers’ from Eielson AFB, Alaska, to meet the demands of high volume training or test events. Their schemes are becoming increasingly exotic to help add realism to their mission as they mimick possible foes — meaning they look and fight like the potential enemy.
The current Initial Operational Test and Evaluation (IOT&E) phase for the F-35 Lightning II demands high levels of aggressor opposition to test the new fighter. The official director of operational test and evaluation specifically quoted the aggressor requirements needed for F-22 Raptor operational testing of its latest upgrade: ‘F‑22A Increment 3.2B IOT&E adequacy requires the ability to conduct mission‑level, open‑air flight testing against specific adversary air capabilities in order to vet the full capabilities of the Increment 3.2B hardware and software enhancements.’
Nellis AFB, Nevada, carries a weight of responsibility for pulling the USAF Combat Air Forces up to where chief of staff Gen David Goldfein wants them to be. Goldfein says he wants to make squadrons more lethal, stating that the USAF must develop its leaders and enable them to successfully lead joint teams. ‘Multi-domain operations is really about thinking through how we penetrate, where we need to penetrate; how we protect what we need to protect inside a contested space; how we persist in that environment for the period of time that we have to remain there. Our nation knows how to do that, but that muscle has atrophied a bit. That’s why you hear a lot of us talking about this attribute of speed. It’s not only speed in executing warfare. It’s speed in how we’re preparing for warfare. It’s speed in how we acquire. It’s speed in changing our concept of operations. It’s speed in terms of how we develop the leaders of the future.’
One of those leaders is currently heading the Nellis charge — Brig Gen Robert Novotny. An F-15C pilot by trade, Novotny is the current commander of the 57th Wing here and a former commander of the 53rd Test and Evaluation Group, and is perfectly qualified to understand the needs of the USAF in this domain. Nellis is where USAF aircrews come to realise Gen Goldfein’s ambition. The resident Weapons School trains new experts in their field, they are the subject matter experts. The 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron is the litmus test for all new ‘kit’ coming to the fore. ‘Red Flag’ is the world’s most challenging air exercise. The Nevada Test and Training Range is arguably the most advanced threat training facility on the planet.
Novotny also has a refreshing attitude towards the military aviation media and to engaging with the wider aviation community. Indeed, he can be thanked for personally leading an ingenious social media campaign to choose a new scheme for an F-16C of the 64th AGRS. It has drawn a huge response from the military aviation community, and his official Facebook page is well worth visiting so you can register your vote.
The expansion of the aggressor community is vital for high-end training and it’s why the USAF has gone from zero contractor support in this area to a multi-layered, pan-service requirement. The USAF is desperately short of professional ‘red air’ adversaries for its front line forces to train against — forcing them to regularly rely on in-house opposition and therefore adding unwelcome wear and tear on fighters not flying their intended misison. Shortly after the deactivation of the 65th AGRS in 2014, Air Combat Command (ACC) conducted an analysis of adversary air capabilities. The outcome was clear — there was a cavernous void in capacity, exacerbated by the advanced fifth-generation fighter fleet, which was growing exponentially. It is for this reason that aggressors are back on the increase. A useful aside is that it also injects some of the variety that has lacked in recent years.