USAF sees red with eagerly awaited aggressor training contract

The US Air Force (USAF) has selected several companies to provide its regular Combat Air Force (CAF) with adversary air (ADAIR) training operations in a huge multi-billion dollar contract.

The not-to-exceed combined contract, worth $6.4bn, was awarded to seven contract air service companies by the USAF's Air Combat Command Acquisition Management and Integration Center (ACCAMIC), based at Joint-Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia. The contractors include: Air USA, the Airborne Tactical Advantage Company (ATAC), Blue Air Training (BAT), Coastal Defense, Draken International, Tactical Air Support (TacAir) and Top Aces Corp.

Aero Vodochody L-159 Honey Badger [Draken International]
A three-ship of Aero Vodochody L-159 'Honey Badgers' in flight. Draken International

The contract will see these defence contractors provide advanced ADAIR and close air support (CAS) training in a challenging and realistic manner to the CAF, across multiple locations. According to the news release, the companies will also be required to provide contractor owned, contractor operated (COCO) ‘aircraft, unmanned aerial systems (UAS), pilots, aircraft maintenance, support equipment, in addition to program, quality, and contract management to meet military requirements’ with the work due for completion by October 29, 2024.

Combat Aircraft understands that, although the large overarching contract has been announced, the seven selected companies will still need to individually bid for each particular requirement at the respective locations that require the services.

64th AGRS F-16C
Lockheed Martin F-16C Fighting Falcon 86-0299 'WA 99,' from the 64th AGRS, in-flight refuels with a KC-135R Stratotanker during Red Flag 16-1. USAF/MSgt Burt Traynor

The ADAIR requirement dates back to 2014 when the USAF was forced to disband one of its three aggressor squadrons in order to save money, along with freeing up F-15C Eagles for various Air National Guard squadrons. As of today, the USAF's two remaining dedicated aggressor units - the 18th Aggressor Squadron (AGRS) 'Blue Foxes’ at Eielson AFB, Alaska and the 64th AGRS at Nellis AFB, Nevada - are kept extremely busy with exercises such as 'Red Flag' and 'Red Flag-Alaska,' whilst also supporting the Weapons School at Nellis. Since 2014, these two squadrons have been operationally stretched, trying to sufficiently serve CAF squadrons in addition to their core roles, often leaving CAF units having to act as their own aggressor forces, something which everyone agreed isn’t a good use of resources. Former ACC boss, Gen Herbert 'Hawk' Carlisle, said in 2016 that pitting F-22s and F-35s against each other amounted to 'zero training and almost negative training,’ adding that 'generating our own adversary from fifth-generation is counter-productive' and suggesting that F-22/F-35 pilots needed to train against an effective aggressor force that outnumbers them by a factor of 3:1 or 4:1.

From this, ACC surmised that it needed to place an effective, resident aggressor squadron at each fifth-generation fighter base, providing pilots with more realistic and challenging ‘Red Air’ scenarios. In recent years, the number of defence contractors in the US offering such services has quickly risen, following a USAF request for information (RFI) for ADAIR capabilities in 2016. This solicitation to industry was for nearly 42,000 hours of contracted aggressor support at 12 separate bases, including Nellis AFB, Seymour Johnson AFB in North Carolina, and Tyndall AFB, Florida, amongst others. A year-long experiment took place at Nellis which saw Draken International's radar-equipped A-4K Skyhawks work alongside the 64th AGRS and the 57th Adversary Tactics Group in supporting both Weapons School and exercise training. The contract proved so successful that an extension was granted to Draken, with the company expanding its presence and adding its new Aero Vodochody L-159 'Honey Badgers.'

Douglas A-4K Skyhawk [Jamie Hunter]
A-4K Skyhawk N161EM, operated by Draken International, on approach to land. Jamie Hunter 

The result of this experiment paved the way for the larger multi-award contract, with the USAF recognising that a single contractor cannot itself provide the mass and footprint to win outright. The RFI for this contract requires supersonic aircraft equipped with radars, alongside sensor and datalink capabilities.

In 2017, Draken completed the purchase of 22 former Spanish Dassault Mirage F1M and F1B fighters, taking its fleet to over 100 aircraft. With Mirage F1s proving to be desirable on the ADAIR market, ATAC also purchased 63 examples along with support equipment and 150 engines in 2017, but these Mirage F1s were formerly operated by France. The Textron-owned contractor has begun preparing these aircraft for the USAF contract and has started adding modern avionics. The variety of COCO offerings has also expanded into smart solutions for Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) training, which also forms part of the new contract.

Spanish Mirage F1s [Draken]
Draken acquired 22 Spanish Air Force Mirage F1s in 2017. This three-ship took place when the aircraft were still in Spanish service. Draken International 

The award of this huge ADAIR contract underscores the importance of this huge emerging industry, even though it is expected that long-term the USAF will attempt to expand its in-house aggressor forces and that the use of synthetics will help mitigate some of the shortfall. The use of contractors will ultimately save wear and tear on expensive front line fighters, whilst tapping into the expertise of the contractor’s former military pilots.