During a ceremony at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, on June 9, the US Air Force’s 65th Aggressor Squadron (65th AGRS) was officially reactivated with the F-35 Lightning II as part of the 57th Wing/57th Operations Group.
The mission of the unit will be to know, teach and replicate fifth-generation air adversaries at Nellis. Immediately before the ceremony, Air Combat Command (ACC) commander Gen Mark Kelly flew his F-15E Strike Eagle against the unit’s first assigned F-35A and newest commander, Lt Col Brandon ‘Napalm’ Nauta. The first 65th AGRS F-35A and unit flagship, 11-5021 ‘WA’/‘65 AGRS,’ acted as a backdrop for the reactivation ceremony. The aircraft, which has been repainted in a two-tone grey aggressor scheme, was previously in standard grey colours, coded ‘OT’ and operated by the 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron (422nd TES) at Nellis. At least one other F-35A painted in a similar scheme has also joined the unit, 11-5020 ‘WA’/ ‘57 OG/CC,’ which has also been transferred from the 422nd TES. To avoid taking aircraft from the front line, the unit will be equipped with older, non-combat coded F-35As. Originally, it had been planned to take nine aircraft from Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.
Kelly said: “Due to the growing threat posed by PRC [People’s Republic of China] fifth- and sixth-gen fighter development, we must use a portion of our daily fifth-generation aircraft today at Langley, Elmendorf, Hill, Eielson and now Nellis, to replicate adversary fifth-generation capabilities. Precisely because we have this credible threat, when we do replicate a fifth-gen adversary, it has to be done professionally. That's the Aggressors.”
On May 9, 2019, the then-ACC commander and Secretary of the Air Force had approved the activation to improve training for fifth-generation fighter tactics development, advanced large force training and operational test support. The decision underwent compliance with the National Environmental and Policy Act and other regulatory and planning processes.
The 65th AGRS was previously active at Nellis from 2005 until being deactivated on September 26, 2014, as a cost-cutting measure. During that time, the unit replicated tactics and techniques of potential adversaries with a fleet of F-15 Eagles. When they inactivated, the 64th AGRS continued the aggressor mission with F-16 Fighting Falcons.
Brig Gen Michael Drowley, 57th Wing commander, said: “This significant milestone marks our ability to bring fifth-generation capabilities to the high-end fight and will allow us to enhance our premier tactics and training with joint, allied and coalition forces.”
The aggressor programme began in the 1970s to provide pilots the opportunity to train against a US aggressor force that replicated advanced and credible adversary tactics. Since then, the adversary capabilities have improved significantly and so did the need to replicate these threats. Col Scott Mills, 57th Operations Group commander, said: “Using the F-35 as an aggressor allows pilots to train against low-observable threats similar to what adversaries are developing.” For the first time during Red Flag-Nellis 21-3, the 57th Operations Group introduced dedicated F-35 aggressors to expand upon the F-16 aggressors assigned to the 64th AGRS. “Working in concert with the 64th Aggressor Squadron, the F-35 aggressors dismantled significant components of the Blue Air game plan and ensured that our combat forces had to work hard for every win,” said Mills.
The F-35s will be employed into large Combat Air Forces exercises, US Air Force Weapons School missions and joint exercises, plus operational test and evaluation events that are only conducted at Nellis AFB and the Nevada Test and Training Range. “Our message to our joint, allied and coalition forces is simple: come to Nellis to fight. The aggressors are ready, and our mission is to ensure you are too,” said Mills.