Falcons in splinters


Mark Ayton spent a day with the F-16C-equipped 18th Aggressor Squadron at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. Operating in support of Pacific Air Forces, this super busy unit trains American and allied fighter pilots in the art of winning air-to-air duels

As US Air Force fighter squadrons go, the ‘Blue Foxes’ is a little different by way of its dedicated mission and the colour schemes applied to the Block 30 F-16C Fighting Falcons on its charge. Watching experienced fighter pilots, each of whom have previously flown various major design series type fighters in the US Air Force inventory, climb into their cockpits at Eielson, squadron patches upon their flight suits give away a Soviet feel. Red Stars denote the squadron’s mission. Playing the part of MiG and Sukhoi fighters in the dedicated adversary role. The 18th Aggressor Squadron has operated from Eielson since October 1, 2007, the first day of its new mission. The previous day had been designated the 18th Fighter Squadron with a multirole mission flying Block 40 F-16Cs. Today’s fleet of Block 30 F-16Cs are slightly older, a little less complex in terms of avionics and consequently provide higher mission availability.

All of the squadron’s Block 30 aircraft were delivered to the US Air Force in 1987 and 1988. Each aircraft is painted in one of seven colour schemes; black-grey-white, black-grey-white splinter, black-blue-brown-green-green-tan, black-brown-green splinter, blue-blue-grey, blue-blue-grey splinter, and brown-greentan. According to squadron officials, the fleet will gradually change to the three primary splinter colour schemes, generally each jet gets repainted when it goes through depot level maintenance at the Ogden Air Logistics Complex at Hill Air Force Base, Utah.

Block 30 F-16C 86-0298/ AK of the 18th Aggressor Squadron during a mission flown from Eielson in support of Red Flag-Alaska 19-2.
Senior Airman Daniel Snider/US Air Force
Block 30 F-16C 86-0270/AK of the 18th Aggressor Squadron painted in the black-grey-grey arctic scheme.
Senior Airman Daniel Snider/US Air Force

”Our mission commander qualification known as MIG 1 permits all such qualified pilots to stand podium and present the training rules in the briefing for the mission.”

A three-ship formation of 18th Aggressor Squadron F-16s showing a variety of paint schemes applied to the unit’s jets.
MSgt Burt Traynor/US Air Force
The 18th Aggressor Squadron operates at least one two-seat Block 30 F-16D aircraft, 87-0375/AK, seen in the arctic colour scheme.
TSgt Jerilyn Quintanilla/US Air Force

Mission tasking

According to 18th AGRS Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Jason Monaco, the squadron’s mission is to understand, teach and replicate threats, which means adversary fighter aircraft. Explaining the squadron’s tasking, he said: “We do that here in Alaska for all of the exercises hosted at Eielson, Red Flag Alaska is the big one, Distant Frontier, Northern Edge, but also, and uniquely, at locations on the road around the Pacific Air Forces AOR. That involves deploying to locations such as Andersen Air Force Base in Guam for Cope North, a big triad exercise involving US forces, the Royal Australian Air Force and the Japanese Air Self Defense Force, and Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii for Sentry Aloha.

Like any squadron operating fighter aircraft, the 18th AGRS has a dedicated maintenance team, not serving airmen, but a contractor. The squadron’s pilots are drawn from different backgrounds throughout the combat air forces. Most have at least two, and in some cases four operational tours in the F-16 or the F-15. All new pilots assigned to the 18th AGRS receive specific aggressor training with the squadron. But the aggressor mission is not conducted to best effect just by the pilot cadre, the squadron is also assigned a cadre of controllers, known as ground control intercept controllers or GCI, who help replicate threats as part of the squadron’s threat laydown in air-to-air training.

During the recent Northern Edge exercise, the 18th AGRS was the primary opposition force for all participants involved. Lt Col Monaco said the squadron provided the primary threat laydown during all missions flown over the ten-day event, which is the largest joint training exercise staged by the US Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM), every two years. Also involving a significant element of testing, Northern Edge offers all aircrew and controllers unmatched training in airspace located over the Gulf of Alaska and the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex by units deployed from around the world.

Given the size and complexity of Northern Edge, the reader might conclude that the 18th AGRS provides specific threat presentations to meet the objectives of the exercise, in a role not usually undertaken during other events. Well, any of us concluding on such requirements are incorrect because the threats presented are done so in a seamless way as Lt Col Monaco explained: “That’s what we do on a daily basis. What we train to all of the time, and that’s one of the reasons that INDOPACOM and Pacific Air Forces tasks us to participate in Northern Edge.

“Our mission commander qualification known as MIG 1 permits all such qualified pilots to stand podium in the briefing auditorium and present the training rules for the mission, and then run the air-to-air debrief. So, we’re an easy fit, especially in our backyard here in Alaska. It’s really nothing different for us, just a different scale than we are used to on a daily basis.

As the mission commander, MIG 1 also leads the entire opposition force (OPPFOR) on the Red Air side, which means all 18th AGRS pilots and all pilots tasked to augment Red Air; other military jets and those owned and operated by contractors.”

Lt Col Monaco said MIG 1 determines the overall Red Air game plan because the 18th AGRS is keeper of the safety rules, special instructions and training rules. He said: “We are the safety observers and prioritise flight safety to avoid accidents and allow the Blue Air forces to train and fight full up. We take that role very seriously for absolutely every participant, no matter what type of fighter plane.”

As a squadron, the 18th AGRS provides a service to other units flying all types within the US Air Force, including the highly capable F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II, and must understand the training requirements of fifth-generation jets. A fact Lt Col Monaco says sets the 18th AGRS apart. “All squadron pilots come from a US Air Force background and are then trained to think like an adversary, which adds to the realism of the training all Blue Air forces. We can’t completely divorce from that. We’re human beings, fighter pilots and controllers at heart, so we are competitive in that sense, to give them the best training possible. We don’t forget the fundamentals and remain fully familiar with the airborne execution aspects from previous assignments, and for some, from combat operations.

Block 30 F-16C 86-0290/AK carries special tail marking’s for the squadron commander, and the new splinter-style arctic colour scheme.
Senior Airman Eric Fisher/US Air Force

Fifth-gen frolics

Discussing the experience of flying against F-22s and F-35s and how they increase the lethality of the fight, Lt Col Monaco said: “As we continue to modernise combat, we continue to add complexity in our scenarios. Fifth-generation aircraft and their capabilities are an additional level of complexity that requires, even more maturity, planning and coordination to do things safely. When it comes to our ability to operate in a complex modern environment, the F-22 and the F-35 do a very good job of adding that challenge for us.”

Each air battle starts at a specific time of the day with all aircraft from both sides, Blue and Red, at their allocated positions, separated by blocks of airspace, and at the time, unless anything is heard to the contrary from the command and control elements, it’s fight’s on. Lt Col Monaco said short of actual combat in which the enemy is silent and does whatever it wants, it’s the most realistic training we can get in a safe way, “such that all the jets return to base safely, and we can talk about the fight afterwards. That’s a success for us. Then we learn.”

Black-tan-green are the colours used in what is dubbed BDU splinter, the latest paint scheme applied to 18th Aggressor Squadron jets based at Eielson.
SSgt Micaiah Anthony/US Air Force

Discussing the possibility of replicating highly capable adversary fighter aircraft, not least those in service with air arms in the Pacific AOR, and what cuffs 18th AGRS pilots have to wear in the fight, Lt Col Monaco said it’s not a concern, “our priority is that the opposition force is safe in its execution. That is really the cuff. We have a very scripted sense of what we are doing to be sure we can conduct the safety observer role for all the Blue Air forces. We brief them on the rules, they fight to the best of their ability and we are the observers of the whole fight. Then we conduct the debrief to provide them with a review of what happened in the air. Then they take the specific lessons learned to their next fights for better execution.

If, during an exercise like Northern Edge, F-22s join the Red Air force to replicate advanced fighters such as the Russian Su-57 or Chinese J-20 because of their performance, the cuffs remain and the pilots follow the same training rules, the same safety standards, attend the same briefing in the morning, and the same debrief to make it a seamless threat presentation from a Red Air force perspective.”

The 18th AGRS launched ten F-16s for most Northern Edge missions providing a considerable Red Air force element, but each pilot regenerated back into the fight numerous times to maintain a robust threat presentation throughout the mission.

Based at Eielson for Northern Edge were four Hawker Hunter Mk58s which flew as part of the Red Air force to augment 18th AGRS F-16s. These 1950s vintage fighters are owned and operated by the Airborne Tactical Advantage Company or ATAC, headquartered in Newport News, Virginia. They are flown by former Air Force or Navy pilots, all with experience in adversary provision. Lt Col Monaco is glad to have augmenting fighters in the Red Air force because they add more threat to the overall presentation and each aircraft used, is one less for the Blue Air force to assign to the OPPFOR, preserving training and testing opportunities for Blue Air.

Sub-zero ops

Eielson Air Force Base is actually considered to be located in a desert region. Why? Because in climatic terms a region is categorised by its annual rainfall, and with slightly less than 10 inches of rainfall in a year, Eielson is considered a desert. Climatic categorisation aside, Eielson is located 220 road miles from the arctic circle and endures a punishing winter with sub-zero temperatures from October through April. The coldest months are December through March when temperatures regularly drop to -20F and occasionally bottom out at -40F.

A top side shot of Block 50 F-16C 86-0298/AK showing the blue-blue-grey splinter colour scheme. The aircraft is seen breaking away from a KC-135 Stratotanker after receiving fuel over the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex during a mission flown in support of Exercise Red Flag Alaska 19-2.
MSgt Burt Traynor/US Air Force

The 18th AGRS fly throughout the winter, the aircraft are all housed in barns and once started inside function fine. Flight operations present a challenge not with aircraft functionality but pilot survival in the event of an ejection.

Maintenance operations in such sub-zero temperatures are also a challenge. Once the barn doors are opened and the aircraft moves outside, it’s not common sense for the maintainers to be working outside. That’s a challenge and tends to slow flight line ops down a little bit.

Cometh the Lightning

In the spring of 2020, Eielson will receive the first of 54 F-35A Lightning IIs to be operated by two new combat-coded fighter squadrons at the base. This will usher in a new mission for the resident 354th Fighter Wing, and the latest chapter of the base’s history. Base commander, Colonel Ben Bishop told Fairbanks’ residents last November with two squadrons of F-22 Raptors based at Elmendorf in Anchorage, and two F-35 squadrons at Eielson, using the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex and its threat emitters, “provides an opportunity to provide a fifth-generation centre of excellence. So I really see tactics and the Air Force’s ability to project combat power is really going to grow up in the skies of Alaska.” Col Bishop told residents he foresees Eielson and Alaska becoming a “mecca” for F-35 training. Some of the buildings purpose-built for the F-35 were already complete during Northern Edge 2019, part of a $500 million programme of works to accommodate the expected 3,500 activeduty and civilian support staff associated with the F-35.

”Our priority is that the opposition force is safe in its execution.”

For the 18th AGRS, the two yet-to-be stood up F-35A squadrons will not only be sister units in the 354th Fighter Wing, but new customers for its adversary service. That means the 18th AGRS is going to be ever busier. Reflecting on the change, Lt Col Monaco said: “We’ll have to up our A game to be current with the threat and support Red Flag, Northern Edge, Distant Frontier and deployments around the INDOPACOM AOR, all of which are at significant distances from Eielson at places like Guam and Hawaii. It will definitely be a good challenge for the entire aggressor mission here.” AI