Red Air: Can The Private Sector Provide Worthy Opponents To Train Military Pilots For Combat?
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The US Air Force has recently announced that it intends to let a number of contracts to the private sector for the provision of “Adversary Air” (ADAIR) capability, in which aircraft simulate foreign opponents to help prepare US aircrews for the next conflict. The value of these contracts is some $6 billion over a 10-year cycle, and initially will supplement the remaining ‘in house’ capability. This seems like a lot of cash for a service that, traditionally, has been handled by the military. It raises the fundamental question of why such a key capability is being outsourced. Before I attempt to tackle this matter, some background and context is necessary.
The US military has had a long-held tradition of using specialist ‘Aggressor’ units to provide Dissimilar Air Combat Training (DACT) to Air Force, Navy and Marine aircrew. Procurement mistakes in the 1950s, misconceptions about the efficacy of air to air missiles and (in the case of the USAF at least) the atrophy of tactical thinking due to the nuclear mission dominating the doctrine and acquisition communities, all conspired to leave the military poorly placed to face the challenges of the 1960s and 1970s. Moreover, the increasing reluctance of commanders of tactical units to let their charges fight ‘fangs-out’ at unit level, risking career-endangering accidents due to collision or loss of control, further accelerated the rapid loss of a very perishable set of skills.
The Vietnam War was the turning point. A policy of visually identifying potential hostile aircraft, to prevent fratricide or the accidental engaging of a Chinese aircraft, at a stroke swept away the primary advantage that the US forces felt they had – that of Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missiles. According to the brochures, and under ideal test conditions, these technological marvels would swat enemy fighters out of the sky for allied pilots. Even when permitted to shoot, US pilots found these “wonder weapons” to be highly unreliable; figures vary, but most settle at about 60 ‘kills’ for over 600 AIM-7 Sparrow BVR missiles fired over Vietnam – a Percentage Kill (Pkill) of less than 10%. The testing simply hadn’t replicated the fog of war, nor the desperation of crews firing weapons outside ideal parameters in close range combat.
Once inside visual range, the advantage shifted to the smaller, more agile, cannon armed Vietnamese MiGs. A lack of DACT training, aircraft optimised for speed not manuverability and, astonishing though it now seems, the new multi-role fighter, the F-4 Phantom, arriving in service without an internal cannon (as missiles were considered the future) all added up to a disturbing air-to-air loss rate. From the Korean War ‘exchange rate’ of 11 kills versus 1 loss, by 1969 US crews were struggling to even achieve parity.
Something had to be done.
A once highly classified series of USAF reports, titled “Red Baron,” laid bare the problems and pointed at the solutions. “Red Baron” reports highlighted two key recommendations. Firstly, there was a disproportionate loss rate for new crews experiencing combat for the first time. Survival chances rose dramatically after new crews reached the 10-mission mark, so Red Baron recommended the creation of a realistic training centre that permitted crews to fly their first 10 missions in a convincing, but ultimately safe and controlled, environment. Operation “Red Flag” was the result, and thousands of US and Allied crews have benefitted from the realism it provides.
The second key recommendation was the formation of dedicated ‘Aggressor’ units, that would provide the Opposing Forces (OpFor) and training for units between Red Flag exercises. This Aggressor force was both overt and covert. The ‘overt’ part was very overt; Aggressor units wholeheartedly adopted their role as simulated Soviet squadrons, painting their aircraft and flying helmets in Soviet markings.
Conversely, the covert part was extremely covert. A highly specialised and secretive unit, the 4477th Test and Evaluation Squadron, took the realism a notch higher by using ‘obtained’ Soviet Bloc MiGs (and Chinese built copies) to provide both qualitative assessment of enemy tactics, flying sorties against US aircraft to examine relative strengths / weaknesses, and providing carefully controlled “exposures” to selected US aircrew.
The rationale behind these ‘exposures’ was to remove the element of ‘Buck Fever’ which sometimes affected pilots the first time they saw a real enemy aircraft. I’ve witnessed this myself in the cockpit, where, often, pilots I was instructing in Air Combat simply stared at the (friendly) F-15 / Typhoon / Harrier boring in towards them, oblivious to the simulated weapon parameters that we were flying into, and invariably wearing a simulated missile in the face.
As important as the aircraft were the people and the ethos. On a squadron, air-air combat training often became an expression of ego, and a battle for bragging rights in the bar. The purpose of Aggressor units was to educate, and to demonstrate the likely tactics employed by Soviet-trained opponents. The credo became “know, teach, replicate,” without ego or favour. Sometimes, when teaching air combat, you have to deliberately lose in order to make the training point – and this takes humility, knowledge and skill to do convincingly.
This became part of the problem.
To move to the Aggressor program, pilots had to acquire years of experience and be graduates of the USAF Fighter Weapons School or the USN Top Gun programs. This resulted in squadrons full of expensive Majors and Lt Colonels flying aircraft that, due to the nature of the job, wore out quickly and required regular maintenance and replacement. Moreover, the threat had moved on. The relatively cheap and plentiful F-5 series aircraft, which the Aggressor system was built upon, whilst an excellent surrogate for 3rd Generation aircraft such as the MiG-21, lacks the performance and systems of Gen 4 aircraft such as the MiG-29 ‘Fulcrum’ and SU-27 ‘Flanker.’
In the early 1990s, selected USAF and USN Aggressor units started re-equipping with the F-16 and F-18 to replicate the MiG-29 and the F-15 to act as a surrogate ‘Flanker.’ This introduced a whole new level of cost and complexity – the F-15 was retired from the program relatively quickly on the basis of these costs. It also meant that many units were not actually conducting DACT – an F-16 squadron fighting a F-16 aggressor was not, save for the fancy paint job and different tactics, fighting a different aircraft.
Costs were spiralling, training value was diminishing and the demands of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East were placing strain on both platforms and personnel. Something needed to be done. Time for ‘The Market’ to offer an affordable alternative?
That’s the issue facing today’s would-be ‘Red Air’ providers. That headline figure of $6Bn is impressive, but also misleading. Over 10 years it’s a $600m per year provision, with an annual target of some 37,262 sorties and 49,512 flight hours per year of effort across 5 aircraft categories. That equates to an average figure, at prima facie, of just over $12,118 per flight hour. This sounds like a lot of money, especially when the rationale for outsourcing is that the amortised cost, according to the Office of the Under Secretary of Defence Comptroller, of flying F-16s as adversaries ‘in house’ has a Direct Operating Cost of between $8,374 to $14,833 per hour (depending how you count it).
Except, of course, it’s not.
The USAF F-16s are already paid for – at a cost of some $30m per copy in 2019 dollars. Then the USAF has to pay for the infrastructure (such as basing) , the maintenance, the pilots, the engineers, the support staff (Air Traffic, cooks, security etc) the upgrade support and to underpin the airworthiness of the aircraft via expensive Post Design Services (PDS) contracts with the manufacturers. As a Congressional Report highlights, aging aircraft also become more expensive to maintain. For a commercial organisation, they have to provide all of that from scratch, and meet a recognised maximum of $25k per hour for high-end surrogate threat platforms.
There is, of course, a sliding scale in effect. Much of the circa 50,000-hour task is providing threats towards the lower end of the spectrum. These contracts have been running successfully for several years, with companies such as ATAC, Draken and Top Aces fulfilling them with retired Gen 2/3 combat aircraft such as the A-4 Skyhawk, Alpha Jet and Hawker Hunter, and slightly more modern training aircraft, for example the Italian Macchi MB 339 and near ubiquitous Czech designed L-39/L-159 family.
However, these aircraft simply cannot replicate the performance and systems demands of the ‘high end’ threat envisaged in the ADAIR requirement set. The USAF needs a viable surrogate OpFor that can achieve high speeds at high altitudes, that can deliver crushingly high-g representative manoeuvres and bring to the ‘fight’ a full spectrum of electronic capabilities such as advanced Air-Air radars, Radar Warning Receives, simulated missile capability and radar jamming.
They also need experienced Aggressor pilots to fly them – at a time when the US Airline market has a rapacious need for fresh pilots, and is offering smooth transitions to service pilots, along with a comfortable, low-risk, well remunerated lifestyle. Whilst perhaps not high on the list of a fighter pilot’s ‘dream sheet’, by the time an experienced and qualified Major is considering their next move in his/her late 30s / early 40s, there is often another, spousal, voice in the debate and decision. Therefore, ADAIR companies are going to have to pay well to attract and retain pilots and engineers with the appropriate skill sets.
This then is the nub of the problem. Sophisticated fighter aircraft are, understandably, not readily available on the open market. When they are, they are often expensive and restricted by onerous export restrictions such as ITAR. The most recent example is Israel’s attempts to sell Block 15 Netz and Block 30 Barak aircraft to Croatia and Hungary; the Department of State insisted these aircraft be returned to their original, as exported, configurations.
The obvious answer for many prospective vendors seems to be older generation F-16s from countries moving towards either later Block F-16s or the F-35. They have the dynamic performance for the task, but require US Government permissions to be re-imported, and will also need extensive, and expensive, upgrading to fulfil the mission needs.
However, F-16A/B models are life limited to 8,000hrs assuming they have received the UP and STAR programmes, there is also no benefit for Lockheed Martin to initiate a Service Life Extension Programme (SLEP) as they wish to sell new Block 70/72 aircraft. From a capability perspective, unless they have received the MLU package then save kinematics, they are less representative than platforms currently in the market space. The estimated cost for an MLU upgrade kit is north of $25-30m. Some companies have already changed horses, importing retired French-built Mirage F1s to the US to be ready to step-up if successful.
The next few months will be telling. For the Market to provide, the aircraft need to be cheap, reliable, available and the individual contracts lucrative and enduring enough for investors to swallow the acquisition and operating costs long enough to generate a return.
It’s not just the US grappling with this particular issue. The UK’s Air Support to Defence Operational Training (ASDOT) program recently collapsed, primarily due to a fundamental mismatch between requirements and budget. Only time will tell if its nascent replacement, the Next-Generation Operation Training (NGOT) programme, will fare better. Whether the ambitious drivers behind ADAIR run aground on the same issues is still an open question, and one that remains to be answered.
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