The United States Air Force is in the business of winning battles in the sky, but in order to do so, Air Force pilots needs to train in realistic combat environments. Just as ground troops hone their skills through force on force training, American fighter pilots have long flown against “aggressor” fleets of aircraft used specifically as mock enemies in air combat training. In recent years, however, fielding these aggressor aircraft (as well as the pilots needed for them) has proven increasingly difficult — but the branch seems to have found a solution: Throwing enough money at the problem to build an aggressor air force that could put some nations to shame.
In a perfect world, we’d have the resources to maintain the aggressor squadrons that we used to have and kind of do it in house with modernized threats,” Gen. Mike Holmes, head of Air Combat Command, told reporters in 2017.
“In the world we’re living in now, we’re limited in personnel and end strength. If we can bring on some contract red air, then not only do we get some dedicated people to train against, we also reduce the amount of time that our crews are spending at a zero-sum budget for flight hours pretending to be somebody else instead of training for their primary skills.”
Earlier this week, the U.S. Air Force announced that it was awarding aggressor contracts to seven companies for the purposes of outsourcing air assault and combat training. In total, these contracts amount to around $6.4 billion, which means the U.S. Air Force is now paying more money for its practice squad than Sweden pays for its entire military each year. The contracts, which are listed as indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity (IDIQ), went to Air USA Inc., Airborne Tactical Advantage Company, Blue Air Training, Draken International, Tactical Air Support, and Top Aces Corp. All of these companies are based in the United States.
Here’s footage of an F-22 Raptor squaring off against an Aggressor A-4 Skyhawk.
The seven deals aren’t just for aircraft and pilots, they are also for the logistical and mechanical support for those aircraft, along with unmanned aircraft that are also expected to take part in the training. The use of drones, in particular, speaks to the Air Force transitioning its combat training toward a technologically advanced opponent like the U.S. may find in China or Russia.
Contractors will provide complete contracted air support services for realistic and challenging advanced adversary air threats and close air support threats. Work will be performed in multiple locations across the Combat Air Force and provide complete services including, but not limited to: aircraft, unmanned aircraft systems, aircraft systems support, pilots, aircraft maintenance, support equipment, in addition to program, quality, and contract management to meet military requirements and is expected to be completed by Oct. 29, 2024,” A Pentagon press release said.
While much of the work these aggressor fleets will do will involve mock dogfights with the Air Force‘s best pilots, that’s not all these contracts are about. These aggressor companies will also aid in training for close air support (CAS) in contested airspace. This training is essential for pilots, who will be tasked with delivering ordnance to exacting coordinates relayed by Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTAC), all while maintaining situational awareness of looming threats all around them.
Some of the fighters in operation for these contracted aggressor companies are A-4 Skyhawks, L-159 “Honey Badgers,” Dassault Mirage F1s and others.