For the last few years, the Pentagon's budget blade has been looming over the 65th Aggressor Squadron, the USAF's F-15 unit that are masters at mimicking large enemy fighters like the Su-27. Sadly, the days of F-15s flying in the adversary role are coming to an end as the unit will be shuttered this month.
At full strength, the 65th AGRS has an inventory of 19 F-15C and F-15D Eagles. Located alongside their F-16 flying sister squadron, the 64th AGRS, at Nellis AFB in Las Vegas, Nevada, the 65th supports a wide range of training and developmental missions. These include supporting the USAF Fighter Weapons School, taking part in operational testing and evaluation of new tactics and technologies, as well as providing enemy threat profiles for detachments of both indigenous and foreign fighter aircraft training on the Nellis Range Complex. Yet what the 65th AGRS, and the 64th AGRS for that matter, are most known for, is their participation in the Red Flag and Green Flag large force employment exercises.
Although this video is decades old, it gives you an idea of what the USAF aggressor program is all about.
During Red Flag's twice a day major launch and recovery intervals, large waves of USAF aggressor F-15s and F-16s, many flying with advanced jamming and self-escort electronic warfare pods, ply their trade against dozens of allied aircraft. While over the range, these elaborately painted fighters are flown using enemy tactics and their pilots can simulate the advantages and disadvantages of discreet enemy fighters that allied pilots could potentially face in actual combat. In some cases, they even fight using ground control intercept (GCI) procedures that are commonly employed by nations that utilize Russian-built aerial weaponry. Even their communications mimic those of potential foes.
Replicating distinct enemy fighters takes skill that has been mastered by the USAF aggressors over many decades. Under such circumstances, a particular vulnerability of a particular fighter, like the poor reward visibility and maneuverability of a MiG-31, would be honored by an aggressor pilot even though he or she is flying an agile F-15 with great rearward visibility. Conversely, the MiG-31 Foxhound's powerful radar capabilities would also be honored by a pilot using their F-15C's APG-63 radar set. In other words, if the Foxhound's radar couldn't see it, but the F-15C's radar could, the aggressor pilot will discount that radar contact and proceed as if it didn't exist.
As one aggressor pilot told me during a recent Red Flag: "Being a really realistic bad guy is an art form not a science."
Unfortunately for the 65th AGRS, this art form does not come cheap, as the F-15 is an expensive machine to keep in the air, costing about $40,000 per flight hour. Seeing as the USAF's fighter fleet has shrunk dramatically since Operation Iraqi Freedom, some say that proportionately shrinking the the USAF's aggressor force makes sense. This may indeed be true, but shuttering one of only three USAF aggressor squadrons, and the only one that flies the more capable F-15C as opposed to the smaller F-16C, makes such a loss not just one of capacity, but also one of capability.
The F-15C, with its powerful radar, gobs of thrust, unique handling and large visual signature is the best thing the USAF has for adequately playing the role of an enemy Su-27 Flanker and its many derivatives, which are largely the most feared aerial opponent for the USAF globally. Losing that capability will amount to a loss in training fidelity for front line pilots.
I talked to a pilot from the 65th AGRS during one of 2012's Red Flags, and even at that time it was uncertain what the fate of the unit would be, but there was much talk about the F-15 flying 65th AGRS merging with the F-16 flying 64th AGRS. Under such a scheme, the F-15 aggressor force would have been truncated down to under ten aircraft, but it would have allowed the F-15's threat simulation abilities to remain intact for future training and development purposes.
Unfortunately this will not be the case, and all of the 65th AGRS F-15s will eventually be either sent to the boneyard or transferred to other units, with seven of the 65th AGRS F-15s flying with the 64th AGRS for a relatively short period of time during the drawdown.
Once the F-15s fade from the 64th AGRS, which will happen by around April of next year, the USAF will be left with only two dedicated aggressor squadrons (the other is the 18th AGRS based in Alaska), flying Block 30/32 F-16C Vipers. This is just a shadow of the Navy and Marine Corps' dedicated aggressor and adversary support program. Currently, there are three Navy and Marine aggressor squadrons that fly the F-5N Tiger II, two that fly the F/A-18 Hornet, and TOPGUN, which flies a mix of F-16A/Bs Vipers, Hornets and Super Hornets.
In addition, the Navy relies more heavily than the USAF on contracted adversary support aircraft, such as ATAC's F-21 Kfirs for supplementary aggressor duties.
What all this means is that the USAF, which has a much larger fighter contingent than the Navy and the Marines, has much fewer aggressor aircraft. What's worse is that they will only be fielding a single aggressor aircraft type that is not dissimilar from the mount flown by the largest fighter community in the USAF to begin with, that being the F-16.
This vast imbalance of aggressor resources is telling as to what the two air arms' priorities are, with the USAF putting a higher priority on advanced aircraft procurement and modernization, while NAVAIR puts a higher priority on realistic training, at least when it comes to air-to-air combat.
Some training concepts could be ramped up to help lessen this massive aggressor gap. One such concept would be for the USAF to invest more money in air-to-air combat training between front-line units flying dissimilar aircraft. Commonly known as Dissimilar Air Combat Training (DACT), these events see one squadron visit another for a couple weeks of intense air-to-air training.
Usually these squadrons fly distinctively different types, and can be from another service or even another allied nation. Although these are great training opportunities, the quality of training against other fleet pilots compared to dedicated aggressor pilots who are extensively versed in distinct threat profiles of many different enemy aircraft and air forces is not comparable.
DACT can also occur during large force employment exercises such as the massive and often international Red Flag exercise, or smaller events like the Air National Guard's Sentry Eagle. These large air combat training opportunities are not cheap, and budget cuts mixed with the USAF's priorities have seen many of them cancelled as of late, yet they are essential for pilots to get their first ten 'combat missions.' They also allow aircrews to see how an integrated air campaign all comes together, including the operational chaos that comes with it.
Another possibility could see the US Navy's aggressor squadrons take up more of a consistent presence at Red Flag and other USAF large force employment exercises. The Navy and Marine's TOPGUN and F-5N aggressors have been players at Red Flag before, but they are tasked heavily with their own fleet's heavy demands and their participation in large USAF led exercises is not currently a normal occurrence.
If the DoD's funding woes continue to deepen, and depending on the priorities they assign to procurement and training, another possible solution to the USAF's aggressor cuts is integrating the USAF and Navy's aggressor forces together. Such a scenario would see a joint aggressor force perform the duties that both forces do now separately. Although this would allow for pulled funding, it would most likely be seen as a boon to the Navy and Marines who would essentially be penalized for their continued investment in aggressor capabilities. Finally, more advanced adversary support could be purchased on an hourly basis from private contractors, although none of them are flying aircraft that can put up a fight like the F-15 or even the F-16 can, at least not yet.
If the F-15 aggressor force has to go, than the USAF would be wise to divert at least some of the 65th AGRS $35M in annual funding to the 64th AGRS and 18th AGRS so that they can field more F-16s and/or apply upgrades to their existing jets. The 64th AGRS has already flown an Infrared Search & Track (IRST) pod during Red Flag with the help of the pod's manufacturer, Lockheed Martin. Fielding more IRST pods and upgrading their jets with a digital electronic surveillance and radar homing suite would give them a potent capability when confronting stealth aircraft like the F-35 and F-22.
Eventually, the USAF will have to update their aggressor aircraft with an AESA radar set so that they can continue to adequately represent potential foes' fighter aircraft. This is especially true as Russia and China begin to field similar systems. The digital nature of the AESA radar systems should also allow for filters to be programmed into the system's software to accurately simulate the capabilities and limitations of radar systems that are currently flying on foreign fighters and interceptors.
There is also the consideration of low observability (stealth) that must be taken into account when it comes to the future of aggressor duties. There is no guarantee that our future foes will be underdeveloped nations with outdated and weak air forces. The days of choosing the wars we participate in on our own terms are over and the chances of a limited peer-state conflict with China or even Russia are much greater than they were just a year ago. Both of those countries are actively developing at least one low observable fighter, not to mention unmanned systems.
The USAF will need to train for the chances of meeting such an elusive threat in combat. Reinstating a portion of the mothballed F-117 fleet and adapting those jets for aggressor duties would be one option, but considering we supposedly cannot even afford a single F-15C aggressor squadron, such a move by the USAF is very doubtful.
It is pretty disappointing that the USAF is choosing to standown its most capable aggressor squadron, when even that squadron will soon lose parity with the equipment that our potential enemies will be flying. In light of geopolitical developments of the last year, the story should be about how America is enhancing its aerial threat simulation programs not dismantling them. Yet in an Air Force where programs like the F-35 suck so much marrow out of the fiscal bone, there is little left over for actually learning to fight with the gear we have, yet alone the more expensive stuff we will supposedly be getting sometime in the future.
Cutting readiness and training to protect failing and increasingly irrelevant gold-plated procurement programs is a race to the bottom for our armed services. Our ability to fight and win today should never be sacrificed for another fighter, tank or whatever, no matter how many states it is built in or how many customers it has overseas.
General Hostage, the guy who runs Air Combat Command, wants Red Flag like training to migrate, to a certain degree, to simulators. Although simulators are useful, and a great place to practice clandestine capabilities and tactics, among more mundane tasks, they are not a replacement for the real thing, nor have they proven to be extremely accurate in their presentation of less than vetted hardware and tactics. Just see the F-35's development as an example.
Software models are just that, models, and the act of air combat under heavy g loading and in real environmental conditions are indispensable when it comes to fighting to win over the modern battlefield. Out of all the aircrews I have interviewed, I have never been told that the simulator is a replacement for the real thing, not even close, and some of these pilots have extensive time in the most elaborate networked simulators in the world.
In the end, it appears that the 65th AGRS, its extremely well trained pilot corps, and its blue and brown Eagles, are all just another sacrificial lamb on the bloody alter that has become the USAF's screwed up list of priorities. The enemy will feel safer knowing that 65th AGRS no longer exists.
Photo Credits Tyler Rogoway/Foxtrot Alpha
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com