Air Force Begins Investing Billions in Adversary Air Training

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A French F-1 Mirage prepares to taxi and take off from Ramstein Air Base, Germany, April 4, 2013. (U.S. Air Force photo/Chad Thompson)
A French F-1 Mirage prepares to taxi and take off from Ramstein Air Base, Germany, April 4, 2013. (U.S. Air Force photo/Chad Thompson)

The U.S. Air Force has officially kicked off its adversary air contract initiative by awarding seven companies a total of $6.4 billion to outsource its assault and combat training.

The service on Friday issued the collective, indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity (IDIQ) contract to Air USA Inc.; Airborne Tactical Advantage Company LLC, known as ATAC, a subset of Textron Airborne Solutions; Blue Air Training; Coastal Defense; Draken International; Tactical Air Support, known as TacAir; and Top Aces Corp. for Air Combat Command's aggressor training, according to a Defense Department announcement.

"Contractors will provide complete contracted air support services for realistic and challenging advanced adversary air threats and close-air support threats," the Defense Department said.

The Air Force for years has looked for a helping hand to fill the enemy, "red air" gap, which would in turn allow for more of its active-duty combat forces to attain air-to-air training on the friendly, or "blue air," side.

Related: Inside the Air Force's Plan to Buy the Dogfight Training of Tomorrow

The training comes down to a battle of simulated attacks for the purpose of enhancing tactics and techniques should pilots find themselves in an aerial dogfight, or having to stave off the enemy. The simulated flights would also include close-air support to enhance Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) training for ground operators.

During the onset of the fighter pilot shortage in 2016, Air Force officials signaled a renewed interest in contracting the work, a cheaper alternative than depleting the service's budget for training and flight hours to act as the enemy.

"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 during the Air Force Association's Air, Space and Cyber Conference 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," he added.

A number of the red air companies have been expanding their aggressor fleets. For example, Draken currently has A-4 Skyhawks and L-159 "Honey Badgers" and recently purchased Dassault Mirage F1s and Atlas Cheetah fighters to add to its inventory. In 2017, ATAC bought upgraded F1 fighters from France; the company flew its first Mirage in August.

The training will be performed at "multiple locations across the Combat Air Force (CAF)," the DoD said. The Air Force has estimated that roughly 40,000 to 50,000 hours of flight time is needed to support aggressor air at a dozen bases across the U.S.

The Air Force will use fiscal 2020 operations and maintenance (O&M) funds in the amount of $15.8 million toward the effort, set to run through October 2024, the announcement states.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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