Draken International has exploded onto the commercial adversary support market in the last half decade, and is now the largest private air force in the world. Yet this flying outfit with an aggressive business plan needs contracts in order to succeed over the long-term. Now it appears the USAF is officially giving Draken a shot at proving their worth at America’s premier air combat training facility, Nellis AFB in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Although this current contract is just a year-long test to see how Draken’s ex-Royal New Zealand Air Force A-4k Skyhawks and their crews do in the aggressor/adversary support roll, it is only a matter of time until the USAF will have no other choice but to widely integrate commercial adversary support into their “red air” training portfolio.
For many years, the Navy has been using contractors for a wide array of aerial threat simulation profiles. This includes contracting with companies like Phoneix Air, with their electronic warfare and target towing pod toting Learjets, as well as the well-established and proven Airborne Tactical Advantage Company (ATAC), which flies Hawker Hunters, L-39s and F-21 Kfirs. Phoenix Air’s aircraft mainly fly against Navy ships, while ATAC’s aircraft fly against both naval vessels, simulating cruise missiles and enemy aircraft, as well as against fleet fighter aircraft. You can read all about ATAC’s unique operation in this article I wrote on them years ago.
Fairly recently, ATAC was certified to carry the captive AIM-9 Sidewinder training round, which gives them a more realistic within-visual-range engagement capability. In the past, their jets were only able to turn 180 degrees with fleet fighters past the merge, and had to approximate a guns or heat-seeking missile kill.
Like I stated years ago, as America’s air arms, and our allies’ air forces for that matter, move towards more expensive fighter aircraft fleets, especially those based around the F-35 which not only costs about twice that of its non-stealthy counterparts to acquire but also to operate. It will become cost prohibitive to fly these aircraft against one-another for rudimentary training. Additionally, putting a large array of targets in the air at one time will become even that much more fiscally painful than it is today once the only available aircraft to do so are 5th generation stealth fighters and aging 4th generation fighters.
We are seeing the USAF already coming to terms with this reality by introducing T-38 Talon associate squadrons alongside their F-22 counterparts. It is simply wasteful flying a $50,000+ per hour F-22 against other F-22s for intercept practice or for simulating cruise missiles threats and other scenarios..
Having private companies augment the DoD’s aggressor force is not a bad thing. I have spent time with one of these units, and it is clear that they offer a great value and service. Not only do they do the job for less than their military counterparts can, they do it more elastically and allow for significant reductions in precious fleet aircraft airframe hours in the process. They are also optimized to bring tailored electronic warfare capabilities into the fight with their service-provided electronic warfare pods. Finally, their air crews are ridiculously experienced, many of which have thousands of hours in fighters and weapons school patches on their arms.
Where Draken stands out capability-wise from other commercial adversary support providers, at least for the time being, is that their ex-Kiwi A-4Ks bring a relatively modern radar set to the fight. This allows for a more complex and realistic menu of advanced engagement scenarios to be played out during training as opposed to using tactical jets without radars. Unlike the vast majority of A-4 Skyhawk types, A-4K packs the APG-66 multi-mode pulse Doppler radar. A slightly more compact version of the same radar found in the F/A-16A/Bs. Draken’s A-4Ks are also capable of buddy refueling and have modern cockpits and weapons interfaces, which could lead to new capabilities in the future.
It will be interesting to see if Draken gets a long-term contract from the USAF to fly as aggressors out of Nellis and even expand ts services to other locations. The Air Force recently and controversially disbanded the 65th Aggressor Squadrons, the service’s only F-15 “red air” unit. Today the 64th Aggressor Squadron, based in Nellis AFB, and the 18th Aggressor Squadron, based at Eielson AFB in Alaska, are the USAF’s only two dedicated aggressor units left, and both fly the F-16. Filling in some of the lost aggressor capacity with creative and nimble private contractors seems like a no-brainer. And although Draken has participated in smaller air exercises in the past, a long-term contract at Nellis, similar to what the Navy offers for a portion of its adversary needs, would most likely be optimal. You simply do not need an F-16 to act as a beyond-visual range target or a cruise missile, so there is plenty of room for efficiency to be found via such an arrangement.
But even if the Air Force doesn’t bite just yet on the long-term commercial adversary cookie, they will have no choice but to do so in the coming years as the F-35 begins to fill the ranks of squadrons at home and abroad and budgetary pressures mount. With this in mind, why not get comfortable with this inevitable change in air-to-air training now as opposed to later?
Contact the author at Tyler@jalopnik.com.