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In the Shadow of the Dragon: the Air Force's Aggressor Challenge

Updated: Dec 29, 2022


A Chengdu J-20. Image Credit: Wikipedia User N509FZ

According to a recent policy paper from the Mitchel Institute, the United States Air Force is on track to be the smallest, most antiquated, and least lethal force that it has ever been by 2027.


That’s a concern because at that exact same time, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) of China will be more powerful and capable than ever before, making a military takeover of Taiwan possible for the first time.


Back to the here and now, in Ukraine, Russia has been unable to consistently gain air superiority over its adversary despite a substantial technical and numerical overmatch in its favour. One reason for this is that the VKS (Russian Aerospace Forces) does not train to operate as a large force, forcing it to operate using less effective, smaller constructs of two aircraft or even singletons.


The West, and the United States in particular, has learned the hard way about both these scenarios before, and our modern vernacular proves it. “Quantity has a quality all of its own”, one mantra advises. “Train like you fight; fight like you train”, cautions another. And “Know your enemy”, a third implores.


Yet despite the ease with which these lexical truth bombs trip off the tongue, the question must be asked: is US Air Force still heeding them?


The answer, say some, is no. Adding that the Air Force has a moral obligation to train fighter aircrew using a more realistic and more numerous Aggressor force than is currently provided.


Key, they say, is to offer front line fighter squadrons a multi-layered threat presentation to train against that includes not only 4.5 generation fighters such as the Shenyang J-11 Flanker L and PL-15 long-range air-to-air missile threat, but also low observable (LO) platforms such as the Chengdu J-20 fifth-generation stealth fighter and stealthy cruise missiles.


Only through such training as this can the US Air Force hope to repel Chinese aggression in a Pacific or Indo-Pacific scenario, they argue.


The question therefore arises, how?


Amongst a pallet of limited options, one of the more audacious plans would be to regenerate mothballed F-117s to act as stealthy Aggressors. Audacious it may be, but advocates say that it is affordable, doable, and achievable within the required timescale. It may also deliver other, more widely-felt benefits.


10 Percent True takes a look, starting with the history of the US Air Force’s Aggressor programme and the current state of adversary training in the US.


In the beginning…


To understand how the United States built a threat training programme that was once the envy of the world, you have to go all the way back to October 1966.


It was then that the US Department of Defense’s Weapon Systems Evaluation Group began analysing 320 individual encounters between F-4 Phantoms and F-8 Crusaders and North Vietnamese MiG-17 and MiG-21s. “Why?”, WSEG wanted to know, “was America’s air combat performance in the skies of Vietnam so poor?”.


The resulting analysis would grow over time to become three volumes of texts known collectively as the Red Baron reports. These would lay out for all to see not only the failings of American tactics and technology in the skies of Vietnam, but also significant failings in the training pipeline that was supposed to prepare fighter aircrew for war.


"Boots" Boothby - one of the principle architects of the Aggressor concept. Credit: USAF.

Maj Lloyd “Boots” Boothby, credited as one of the authors of Red Baron, gathered his colleagues Maj Richard “Moody” Suter, Maj Randy O’Neill, and Capt Roger G. Wells, to determine how to respond to the reports’ most pressing revelation: most of America’s fighter pilots were simply not familiar enough with fighting dissimilar aircraft, and this was mostly down to a stateside training process that was not fit for purpose.


These so-called Iron Majors had an answer: the formation of a force that would offer dissimilar air combat training using the real-world tactics of threat nations like North Vietnam, and the acceptance of an increased risk of training mishaps in the interests of getting pilots ready for war. They called the idea “the Aggressors”.


The first Aggressor squadron, the 64th Fighter Weapons Squadron (64th FWS), was formed at Nellis in the summer of 1972, and so began a long and successful Air Force programme to train tactical fighter aircrew against a realist threat presentation.


Through the late 1970s, the Air Force maintained five operational Aggressor squadrons, while the US Navy stood up an even greater number of Adversary squadrons.


Then, with the basic premise of the Aggressors working well, the second part of the concept – that the Aggressors should tour – was put into action: road shows were born. The Aggressors would travel to different fighter bases across the world and spend two weeks there giving academic presentations about threat nation pilots, their aircraft, and their tactics, and giving them experience flying against dissimilar aircraft types.


The Aggressor programme was an unequivocal success (which is not to say that it was not in some respects controversial), and when the US Air Force went head-to-head with the Iraqi Air Force in January 1991, its ability to dominate so indubitably happened in part because most fighter aircrews had trained against the Aggressors and knew what to expect.


But as America’s airmen returned triumphant from that war, and as the Cold War edged into the past, the Reagan model of defence spending ground to a halt. Amid budget cuts and changing attitudes to the defence budget, the Air Force began a reduction in forces programme that heralded the start of a slow self-evisceration and paved the way for a programme of divestiture that continues to this day.


Among the victims of that divestiture was the Aggressor squadrons: by 2014 only two of the original five remained.


It was the end of an era.


But most importantly, it was the start of a new era; one that would challenge the Air Force in its pursuit of realistic threat training and one that continues to do so today.


Quantity & Quality


This year, the Air Force reactivated the 65th AGRS at Nellis AFB, NV. The squadron is exceptional for two reasons.


First, while the other Aggressor units operate F-16Cs, it operates very early Block F-35As. These F-35s are low-rate, initial production (LRIP) builds that are not on the upgrade path and therefore not suitable for frontline squadrons, making them a shoo-in for a niche role like this.


Second, the 65th AGRS specialises in replicating China’s latest fifth-generation designs, the J-20 and the emerging Shenyang J-21 (also referred to as the J-31).

The squadron’s reactivation bumped to three the total number of AF Aggressor squadrons and was met with general applause.


However, the unit is emblematic of the challenges the Air Force faces and must conquer if its fighter aviators are to prevail against a true peer threat – the 65th AGRS can deliver neither the quality nor the quantity of training that is required.


Consider this: the unit is equipped with only 11 aircraft (USAF squadrons typically have a primary authorised aircraft count of 18-24) and the average F-35A mission capable rate is only 60%. The maths therefore says that it’s statistically likely to have only around seven aircraft available to execute the mission at any given time. It is not surprising therefore to hear that at one recent Red Flag there were never more than two Aggressor F-35s airborne at a time, and sometimes the number was only one.


Now, consider this: the 65th AGRS’ ability to replicate threats is apparently stymied by a reliance on old style threat tactics that have little resemblance to what the Chinese are likely doing for real.


And this is to say nothing of the F-35’s innate technical limitations that mean it’s not actually a great choice for the mission.


For example, Aggressor F-35 weapons computers still contain missile engagement zone data for the AIM-120 and AIM-9 missiles, not Chinese PL-8, PL-12 or other threat nation air-to-air missiles. Therefore, training against them requires Blue (friendly) and Red Air pilots to memorise arcane rules of thumb to understand whether a shot is valid or not, making real-time kill removal more of a challenge.


The F-35 is also unable to modify its radar signature or radiate other waveforms to create realistic threat representations for electromagnetic warfare and warning equipment, further reducing the training impact it delivers.


All of this is not a reflection on the men and women of the 65th AGRS, but of an Air Force that is behind the power curve by some distance. So, even if all 11 F-35s flew every time and could replicate threats with fidelity, demand force-wide would still massively outstrip supply.


The Air Force has 55 fighter squadrons that need training, after all, and gone are the days of Aggressor roadshows. Now, an F-22, F-35, F-16 or F-15 squadron must attend a large force exercise like Red Flag to get a brief exposure to the Aggressors, and for fighter aircrew that may happen only once per year.


“Even then”, says Ryan Fishel, a current F-15E pilot and contributor to online magazine War on the Rocks, “the dedicated aggressors may be stretched so thin that operational units must often give up training sorties and pilots to fill adversary air requirements.” In other words, instead of learning to employ, they’re playing the role of Red Air and using threat tactics for the benefit of others. In fact, as many as 20 percent of a unit’s flying hours at a Red Flag may be spent paying off what is colloquially called the “Red Air bill”.


For the other 50 weeks of the year, all Red Air sorties must be created organically by the fighter squadron itself.


This process of siphoning off Blue Air players to act as an organic Red Air has a disproportionate effect on the training that frontline crews get. It takes away learning opportunities for those assigned to Red Air, but it also provides a substandard training opportunity for the Blue Air team.


“When we go out and we fight each other, it's normally either a 4v2 or a 4v4 or something along those lines and we’re just not replicating either the numbers or the quality of aircraft that we're facing”, Fishel says, adding “and from a sensor perspective we as 4.5 gen fighters are not LO”.


There are less obvious knock-on effects, too.


One is an exacerbation of the fact that some of the Air Force’s fighter fleet is getting short on hours.

The 4th Fighter Wing’s F-15E’s at Seymour Johnson, where Fishel is stationed, are a good example – some have 12,000 hours on them and are approaching the end of their lives (the F-15E has a 16,000-hour fatigue life).


Then of course there is the question of the pilot shortage. Fighter pilots in particular are in demand (the AF is short 1,650 pilots), meaning that the ones that are available should be doing nothing but Blue Air.

The Adair Model


The Air Force saw most of this coming.


To assuage the shortfall in Aggressor hours being flown, it created the Combat Air Force Contracted Air Support (CAFCAS) programme in 2015 to use civilian contractors to provide adversary air (Adair) training services at 12 stateside fighter bases.


According to the Government Accounting Office, CAFCAS is intended to be 15-year interim solution that lasts to 2030, during which time the Air Force will reactivate more Aggressor squadrons and rebuild its own organic Aggressor programme.


CAFCAS moved quickly, going from an 800-hour proof-of-concept in late 2015 to the award of the first of several contracts in 2016. This went to Draken International, a venture capital funded business that realised it was never going to win a contract unless it actually had iron on the ramp, according to Fishel. It took the plunge and purchased New Zealand’s mothballed stock of A-4Ks without so much as a verbal contract in place.


Draken Honey Badgers. Credit: Draken.

The gamble paid off, and Draken’s contract with Nellis was to deliver 18-24 commercial red air sorties each day until 2023, with their primary customers being the Weapons School and Red Flag, but also the F-16 formal training unit at Luke AFB, AZ.


Commercially speaking, the costs of an Adair contractor furnishing training are compelling. Draken claimed that it could deliver an Adair threat presentation for a mere 20% of the cost of an F-16 doing it, and perhaps as little as 10% of the cost of getting and F-22 or F-35 to do it.


CAFCAS has resulted in a trickle of very well-funded businesses buying up stocks of old fighters from Air Forces around the world. Indeed, Draken owns around 100 fighters made up of A-4K Skyhawks from New Zealand, L-159As direct from the factory, Dassault Mirage F1Ms from Spain, MB-339CBs, MiG-21BIS from Poland, Atlas Cheetahs from South Africa, and so on. Its most recent purchase was F-16A/B MLUs from the Netherlands. Except for the latter, the fleet is made up entirely of third-generation platforms, although Draken markets them as having fourth-generation capabilities.


Others, like TACAIR, Top Aces and ATAC boast similar, albeit smaller, adversary air fleets, have also won large contracts.


In 2020, the Air Force awarded a maximum value contract of $6.4 billion to seven contractors to deliver 40,000 hours’ training. As part of this, ATAC was awarded the contract to provide Adair to both the F-16s at Holloman AFB, NM and the F-35s at Luke AFB, AZ; and TACAIR won the contract to provide the same services to the F-15s at Kingsley ANGB, OR.


Yet even by that time, less than five years from inception, Gen Mike Holmes, commander at Air Combat Command, had already suggested that CAFCAS may not get full funding. In that event, he said, “I’d like to focus on supporting the training enterprise. The general priorities are the flying training units, [and to] support the advanced training units at Nellis“. And this came despite the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 stating that “it is the sense of Congress that it is critical that the Air Force has the capability to train against an advanced air adversary in order to be prepared for conflicts against a modern enemy”.


Holmes’ prediction came true. In the intervening two years, most Adair exposures have gone to FTUs, large force exercises or other training units such as the Weapons School and the 422d Test and Evaluation Squadron.


The Adair concept has also delivered fewer hours than expected (<15,000, according to Jeffrey Parker, formerly of ATAC and now CEO of Defense Business Strategies), and still services only five fighter bases of the planned 12. Most the Air Force’s 55 fighter squadrons continue to go hungry, therefore.


It seems that the CAFCAS programme has fallen short of delivering on its objectives in recent years.

Parker wrote this month in DefenseNews that the Air Force must publish a roadmap to instil confidence in the contractors, allow them to plan their acquisitions and to deliver the promised hours and Aggressor training coverage.


Regardless of hours and fighter base coverage, the curious among us will ask what the customer experience has been like for high-end users like the Weapons School?


According to the Air Force, F-22 and F-35 pilots at Nellis are getting very limited training value from Draken’s fleet. The problem is acute and echoes Fishel’s own experiences as a frontline fighter pilot: the US Air Force needs to train against fifth-generation, low-observable threat simulators, not Vietnam-era, 3rd Gen fighters.


This realisation – admission, perhaps – has prompted the Air Force to cancel the $280m Nellis contract with Draken one year early. It was no doubt also front of mind when the decision was made to reactivate the 65th AGRS in the summer, too.


For Draken, which only recently confirmed its planned acquisition of the Dutch F-16s and therefore appears to be a little slow on the uptake for once, one imagines that there is much gnashing of teeth amongst shareholders. For starters, Adair contracts expect the contractor to continue to incrementally increase their capabilities, yet Draken continued to use the Kiwi A-4Ks and pursued the Mirage F1s, neither of which was materially sufficient to meet the brief.


And so it comes to pass that 65 AGRS’s diminutive fleet of F-35As is being used to plug the capability gap. To aid them, F-22s continue to be pilfered from Blue Air stocks to help create useful Red Air threat presentations.


And all this to a tiny number of customers.

The LO Threat Scenario


An artist's rendering of the H-20 stealth bomber. Credit: Weibo.

For a long time, the United States expected to remain the sole purveyor of fifth-generation, low observable airpower.


But China has its own rubric and has defied that prediction.


It currently operates the Chengdu J-20 – its answer to the F-35 - and is expected to introduce the stealthy H-20 bomber and J-21 (sometimes referred to as the J-31) fighter in the near future.


The pressure is mounting all the time. This month, news outlets in Asia reported that Chengdu has increased production of the J-20 to match the numbers of US F-22s and F-35s stationed at or deployed to bases in the Pacific.


As has happened in the United States in the years since the F-35 Lightning’s introduction to service, China is now embarked on a journey to learn how best to wage war with its newfound fifth-gen capabilities. It will be learning how to integrate J-20s with its 4.5 Gen fighters; how to use the J-20 as a force multiplier; and how to layer in these assets with LO weapons such as cruise missiles, to create a door-kicking solution to the problem that is ‘Day 1’ of any number of scenarios.


China taking Taiwan is an obvious scenario and one that causes sleepless nights for some of those who would play a central part in it.


But there is more than just one scenario to consider.


“We might be protecting shipping, protecting logistics or protecting bases. Or we might be launching standoff weapons or doing some sort of DCA [defensive counter air] against standoff weapons”, says Fishel, who likens the battle for logistics to the convoy protection mission of World War II.


“If you look at the Chinese threat inventory right now, they've shored up a lot of stealth fighters, anti-ship missiles and a lot of standoff munitions. So, practicing against small RCS targets is one of the things that would serve us incredibly well”, he states.


This is much easier said than done: in truth, the Air Force is a long way off being able to deliver such training in terms of threat numbers, let alone in terms of threat capabilities.


In any scenario involving the Taiwan Straits, the Chinese would be able to mass a lot more iron than the US forces combined, perhaps as much a double the amount.


If Day 1 ever happened, it would likely start with a barrage of LO standoff weapons to take out Allied strategic air defences, followed by a fighter sweep push to target the Allied fighters trying to engage the cruise missiles, followed by a striker push to take out fighters on the ground, and so on.


In effect, the US, Taiwan and Coalition defence forces would be met by a large, sophisticated, multi-layered Chinese threat.


Options


Expansion of the Adair mindset appears to represent the most immediate and pragmatic option for filling the threat training gaps and getting closer to creating an Aggressor capability that aligns with the training goals of a Straits of Taiwan scenario.


This assumes that that CAFCAS can be made to operate properly and that a balance can be struck to allow delivery of both Red Air training and specialised LO Red Air training. But it fits with the Air Force’s stated goals: “use of air support contracts for adversary air training are expected to phase out in 2030 as the Air Force implements other training options with enhanced capabilities”.


For the Adair companies therefore, it’s time to make hay.


While Draken was losing its Nellis contract, Top Aces was busy acquiring a fleet of F-16s from the Israeli government – an acquisition that last month led to the award of the Adair contract to support F-35s at both Luke AFB and Eglin AFB, FL.


Top Aces boasts that its F-16s have an “Advanced Aggressor Mission System” (AAMS): an open system architecture that lets the company add new sensors and functions to match and replicate new and developing threat systems.


Their F-16s are also equipped with active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, helmet-mounted cueing system, tactical datalink and an infrared search-and-track system, meaning that while not an LO threat emulator, they will certainly be able to offer a very good 4.5 Gen replication and may be able to provide some electromagnetic replication of J-20 etc. The former is handy given there is a technical overmatch between the likes of Russia’s Su-35S (NATO: FLANKER R) and R77-1 (NATO: AA-12 ADDER) combination and the F-15 and F-16 series of fighters, and not in America’s favour.


In DefenceNews, Parker wrote, “Another option for the Air Force is to… procure an adversary training version of the T-7 Red Tail”, and use Air Force pilots to fly it. But the T-7 option would take several years and would cost, Parker says, around $2.5 billion for a purchase of 100 aircraft. It would also draw down on an already-depleted pool of pilots and run counter to the decision to expand Adair contracts until 2030.


Of course, none of these things solve the LO piece of the puzzle, so it will be interesting to see whether the contracts at Eglin and Luke last.


The AF has certainly recognised the need for a true LO replication, awarding at least one contract to develop an LO UAV design, but Fishel argues that this solution is too immature and therefore too distant in terms of productization to get excited about. It fits (just about) with a 2030 timeline but would not arrive in time to impact the readiness of Blue Air players for the 2027 tipping point referenced by the Mitchel Institute paper.


An artist's rendering of what an Adair LO UAV may look like. The reality is some way off in the distance, though. Credit: Blue Force Technologies.

Augmented reality, about which much has been made of late, is discounted by Fishel as having limited application in its current state (“I can see it being good for showing missile trails when someone shoots at you”, he grants).


That leaves what some believe is a very optimistic, stop-gap alternative – to use mothballed F-117A Nighthawks as LO Aggressors and to have them flown and supported in the CAFCAS programme by an Adair contractor.

F-117 Aggressors


There is certainly scepticism at the mere suggestion that detachments of F-117 Aggressors is realistic, most of which appears to be on basis that it would take too long and be too expensive to do.


But Fishel, who originally mooted the ‘117 Aggressor idea in his War on the Rocks article in October 2022, remains unswayed. Steadfast, too, is Todd Ericson, a former Air Force test pilot who has flown the F-117 and now works in a number of roles as a civilian, including as business development manager for Denmar Technical Services.


Ericson says little about DTS, and its website bears all the hallmarks of a business that would rather not have a website at all, but I understand that the company owns the rights from Lockheed Martin to support F-117 operations, meaning that it is the contractor behind current F-117 operations by Air Force Material Command.


The primary reason for the F-117’s limited reactivation (only five are flying today) remains classified, but the aircraft – flown by AFMC pilots – clearly have an interesting side-line providing LO Red Air training to Air Force and Navy units in the Nellis ranges and further afield for those units that can afford to pay the bill.


It is with this background of experience and empirical evidence then, that Ericson and DTS have developed an understanding of both the costs and timescales that would be required to reintroduce to service the remainder of the mothballed fleet. “It will all depend on how much time and money the customer wants to commit”, says Ericson, adding that “regenerating the F-117s is not a significant issue”.


The idea is certainly interesting, although commercial confidentiality and (presumably) national classification issues mean that it’s light on detail.


The wiper bays on the F-117 - located directly beneath the engine intakes - are well suited to the addition of missionised equipment. Credit: USAF.

So, what do we know and what can we infer?


Up until 2017, Congress had mandated the Air Force’s F-117As remain in Type 1000 storage, which meant that they could be returned to flight quickly and without significant cost. After that, they mandated that the Air Force dispose of them at the rate of four per year, but the Air Force stalled for time, explaining that it couldn’t do that until it had first developed a way of safely disposing of the toxic radar absorbent coatings.


By 2019, 51 F-117s remained in storage, of which “most have well over half of their fatigue life left on them. A subset has remained in Type 1000 storage and the others are in Type 4000 storage, which means they’re mothballed”, Ericson says.


“The major components are all easy to get thanks to the commonality of parts with other types”, he adds. “The engines in the airplane are the same as that flying in the Legacy Hornet, minus the afterburner. The flight control system is essentially the same box as the F-16, etc. There are some systems that need nuance to regenerate, but avionics these days can be torn out and redone a lot quicker and cheaper with more or less commercial off the shelf type systems. A bit like the Navy has done with their F-5 Aggressors, combining things like an IRST [infra-red search and track] and Link 16 [data link]”.


From what little public response I could find from AFMC, scepticism abounds, although one has to wonder whether these actually signs of a turf war. You see, the F-117s are owned by AFMC and given it’s likely they are being used to test and develop new technologies, the Aggressor concept could be a threat to that role.


What’s undeniable is that F-117 makes for an excellent LO Aggressor platform for the most part. It is limited to .9M and 4g, so will not be able to fly high-fast-flyer profiles or turn hard at a merge, but that’s not what Fishel and his cohorts are looking for.


Instead, they want to see realistic threat presentations that test their ability to use their AESA radars and that help them develop tactics against low RCS threats: “Our AESAs are good radars”, Fishel says, “But there's still a lot of tactics that have to be tested and validated”.


The Nighthawk has the lowest radar cross section of any western manned fighter that we know of and is almost certainly lower in RCS than a J-20. Its RCS profile is also extremely well documented, so it can be very effectively employed to fly at pre-planned aspect angles, altitudes and ranges from Blue Air to simulate more/less RCS reduction in different phases of flight (while beaming, for example).


Moreover, it can be equipped with waveform generators in ledges below the intakes called wiper bays to create custom electromagnetic signatures and simulate Red Air electronic attack capability, while the forward- and downward-looking infra-red targeting systems can be deleted to make way for IRST sensors.


“It's a great basic platform”, Ericson says, “that you can add a lot of capabilities to. Its [avionics] systems are Federated where they're not running through a central processor like they are in the F-22 or other weapon system where you require a huge software update to increase capability. Depending on what you want to do, there's a lot of real estate on that airplane that you can use especially if you take out the legacy stuff you don't need. The weapon bays themselves are huge, so they can house electronics to do all sorts of things”.


The F-117 could also be equipped with aperture technology to allow it to transmit and receive signals without compromising its LO signature, Ericson adds: “We've come a long way with the LO apertures on the F-22 and F-35. We can maintain a signature while still being able to transmit and receive signals”.


The 65th AGRS F-35As are LRIP and not on the upgrade path. They also cannot readily be reprogrammed to emulate Chinese threat systems. Credit: USAF

It’s also reliable. Ericson won’t say what the current MC rates are for the handful of Nighthawks currently flying, instead pointing out the F-117’s historical reputation as a reliable platform. “The 117 is a very simple airplane. There is not a whole lot of things to break in the airplane”.


What he does say is that the numbers stack up as far as DTS is concerned, and that this is a cost-effective interim solution for the Air Force: “The flying hour cost is going to be a lot less than an F-22 or an F-35 – somewhere around half the cost per hour of those airplanes. You are also not taxing Blue Air and you're saving [fatigue] life on those airplanes to do really what they're intended to do”.

As for the training model, Fishel advocates for “two detachments of twelve to fourteen LO Aggressors – one at Seymour Johnson AFB on the east coast, and one at a west coast base” that could deploy to other bases to provide service to as many units as possible.


When asked whether 24 Nighthawks could really make a dent in the training deficit, he’s adamant that they would: “If you look at an average Fighter Squadron, every day we do a 10-turn-eight. That’s ten sorties in the morning and eight sorties in the afternoon. On Fridays, we normally just 10 to zero. Usually, about half of those sorties are Red Air, but let’s call it one third. If you have 18 sorties total, six to nine are going to be Red Air. If you can get F-117s to fill in even a quarter of that, you're looking at a total overall of maybe a quarter deficit on flying”.

Live training vs. Simulation


In listening to all of this, the question arises as to why simulation be used to achieve the same learning outcomes? Is a live LO training threat really so necessary?


“The problem is that you only get out what you program into a simulator. If you are trying to simulate a J-20 of PAKFA, your training value is only as good as how well you can simulate it. Without getting into details, there's a lot of programs in the past where we've simulated threats and we got it mostly right, but the stuff we got wrong made the difference between whether our systems were effective against that threat or whether they were ineffective”, says Ericson, adding “The danger is that you start learning the wrong lessons when you're training against that simulation”.


There is also the question of being able to model things that are extremely complex – atmospherics, for example, says Ericson. “In the infrared range, atmospherics can create some really crazy differences on how things look. Day to day it looks the same, but the atmosphere from an infrared standpoint can be completely different and that really affects timelines, it really affects tactics, it really affects your survivability”.


Fishel points out that simulators do nothing to replicate the vagaries of real-world flying operations and are too sanitary to replace live training. “You can imagine that pretty much everything works as it should in our sims. There are no real-life problems with MC rates or partially mission capable aircraft or radars that have a bad systems. You know, every radar and every jet is different: some radars and some jets are great some radars are not. We have a mix of suites [operational software programmes] in the jet. Some jets are on Link 16 [datalink], some jets are not”.


“You can get a lot of good stuff from the sim”, he accepts, “and you can rehearse scenarios that you otherwise don't have the airspace for, but when it comes to validating tactics every tactic is valid in the sim just about right. But once you get outside of that and you don't have a line of [software] code that's controlling a Flanker that is going to shoot at X range and then do a tactical turn away or a crank, you can start mixing it up where you have somebody on the Red side who’s analyzing what you are doing and trying to poke weak points in your plan. That's when you have to exercise your tactical muscles and combine that with how well your Blue systems are operating”.


Embracing live LO training would likely have additional knock-on effects, says Fishel. Namely, a “Strategy of onboard emerging tech in a developmental test / operational test capacity through Red teaming”.


In this concept, as the 117s come online and Air Force refines both its J-20 simulation and technologies to counter it, Red teams – tech companies, manufacturers and smaller contractors – can work with the Air Force’s development and operational test communities to develop and field those technologies through the CAFCAS programme.


By way of example, that could include helping develop networking capability with the LO UAVs as they come online – perhaps even making the F-117 the mothership to loyal wingmen type Aggressor drones. Or it could be the development of new LO coatings or weapons systems, all of which could be tested in real EM and EA environments.


It is Fishel’s belief that this could lead to a rapid onward adoption of new technologies by the Air Force, and that this would translate into an ability to iterate much fast than the enemy.


Iteration, says Ericson, is key: “I want to be the country that that does iteration faster than the next guy. If you look at it the J-31 right now, from the front it looks identical to an F-35”, Ericson claims, meaning that America must now iterate again to up the ante. “It goes back to the origins of the American fighter pilot - John Boyd and his OODA loop. That's what it's all about: being able to make decisions faster than the enemy”.


Conclusion


The F-117 may present the only viable interim solution to the Air Force's current LO training challenge. But will the naysayers win? Credit: USAF

The Air Force is already on record with its plan to reactivate Aggressor squadrons and phase out Adair contracts through 2030. If it can get the CAFCAS programme delivering as it should, then it may well end up building an Aggressor force and programme that is once again the envy of the world.


But the Dragon’s shadow looms large, and time is short, so it must be prepared to be inventive in delivering interim solutions that allow it to shift from back to front-foot.


The F-117 Aggressor idea ticks many of those boxes, even if it doesn’t scale significantly because there is only a finite number of Nighthawks available to draw from.


But it is presented only as an interim solution and it inhabits a space that is conspicuous by the absence of other viable ideas. “There's a gaping hole in training that needs to be filled”, Ericson reflects. “How do you do that quickly? We know the F-117 is a viable option until a more complete system is available”.


Classification and other confidentiality considerations mean that it’s unlikely a detailed, data-driven conversation about the plan will take place in public. But if the right people become interested within the Air Force, then perhaps it stands a chance.


“Will the bureaucratic process slow it down? Probably”, says Fishel. “Potentially there there's a lot of people that will be dragging their feet and there's a lot of people that are interested in it not happening. There are various empires throughout the Air Force that have different interests”, he adds.


But he is without equivocation that the plan is pragmatic and reasonable. “The bottom line is it's dumb not to do this. You have the aircraft, you have the availability to do it, and you have the money to do it. The CAFCAS contract vehicle is structured to be able to make that happen and it's not that difficult to do. If ACC wants to make it happen, they can make it happen".


Ericson closes with another of those lessons learned the hard way: “You don't want to be on par with the enemy - you want to meet him with exceeding force. You don't win by being on the same level or by training against second- or third-generation type airplanes. They are not the same as a fifth-generation type aircraft. And we want the enemy to know that we are well trained and ready to assess whatever or address whatever they throw against us. That's how you win wars. Training is a huge part of that”.


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