The Navy must find a way to maintain a stable of adversary aircraft or risk sending aviators into combat ill-prepared to fight.
Aging aircraft and a lack of modern capability have weakened the U.S. Navy’s adversary fleet, and the addition of contract air services (CAS) has not met the growing needs of fleet squadrons. It is imperative that fighter aircrew train against adversary aircraft that are as analogous as possible to the real threat. The Navy must recapitalize its adversary fleet and more aggressively manage CAS to meet the unit-level needs of tactical aviation.
The Navy’s Adversary Squadrons
The Navy’s adversary force (“red air”), largely flown by Navy Reserve pilots, comprises the FA-18A and FA-18C, which were designed in the 1970s, and the Vietnam-era F-5N (with some Navy F-16s, also designed in the 70s). Keeping these aging aircraft airborne and upgrading their systems have proven costly.
Many of these aircraft lack higher-end radars, data link, helmet mounted sights (HMS), glass cockpits, heads-up display (HUD), and high-off boresight missiles. They also lack many civil aviation fundamentals such as GPS, required navigation performance area navigation (RNP-RNAV), and instrument landing systems. These upgrades are slow in arriving because money is needed to rebuild the front-line fleet.
The solution has been to use CAS: private companies with their own adversary aircraft. The Navy has used ATAC USA in this role for almost 15 years. The other major company, Draken International, has been around for about seven years as the Air Force’s primary CAS provider. A third company, TacAir, recently was awarded a contract (since protested) to support the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center (NAWDC) and the Navy Fighter Weapons School (TopGun), primarily from Naval Air Station Fallon.
ATAC operates the Hawker Hunter, F-21 Kfir, and L-29; but just like the FA-18A and F-5, these are old aircraft, without radar or other systems needed to replicate high-end real-world threats. They also typically operate from civilian airfields, making last-minute support requests a challenge.
The Navy awarded TacAir a contract for “fourth generation” red air composed of F-5s with upgraded radar systems. The contract summary directed applicants to “define fourth generation fighter jet attributes” and included some specifics: look-down/shoot-down mechanically scanned radar, helmet-mounted sight, and other systems. But primarily the plan gave companies a choose-your-own-adventure approach, with some guiderails.
Providing a fourth-gen adversary is more complicated than buying retired F-16s and throwing them into the sky. The difficulties fall into two broad categories: (1) platform cost and acquisition; and (2) contract scope, scale, and process.1
The Navy’s aging adversary force is made up of FA-18As, FA-18Cs, and Navy F-16s, which were designed in the 1970s, and the Vietnam-era F-5N, which have proven costly to upgrade and maintain. The Navy must revitalize its adversary fleet if it wants its aviators prepared for future warfare. Shown here is a Saab JAS-39 Gripen mocked up in Navy aggressor squadron colors. This is the type of advanced aggressor fighter needed to maintain the quality of air-to-air combat training.
Like Carmax, But with Jets
The first challenge is finding the right platforms. Selling CAS companies old F-16s may seem like a solution, but that is illegal. Surplus U.S. fighters must be moved from the “boneyard” at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base to the Defense Reutilization and Marketing Office (DRMO) to be “demilitarized.”2 This is fine if you want a jet for a museum, but not if you want to put a radar in it and fight another fighter.
Another obstacle is the aircrafts’ material condition. They have been retired for a reason: they are too old, beat up, and fragile to fly like fighter jets any more.
Finally, the cost of operating an F-16 is about the same for CAS companies as it is for the military. The CAS industry relies on saving the government money; flying aircraft with the same cost per flight hour as the Navy is a poor investment for everyone.
That leads CAS companies overseas. CAS providers have fleets that are foreign-built or once were operated by foreign militaries. But they have to be choosy and consider why a country is divesting itself of aircraft. In some cases, the seller is looking to cut costs. More likely, these aircraft are on the market because they are too broken to fly. In addition, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires detailed aircraft records to grant flight clearances. Foreign-operated aircraft may have been modified with classified equipment, and when a CAS company asks for maintenance logs, the seller may withhold this information, which makes importing the aircraft impossible.
Thus, CAS companies have to rely on older aircraft with updated internal systems. This is true of both ATAC and Draken, each of which recently purchased Mirage F1 aircraft in an effort to provide fourth-gen capability.
Department of Defense (DoD) policy and federal law generally limit contracts—including contracts for red air support—to five years. Economy of scale can be difficult for contractors to achieve in such a short period. Costs spread over a longer time can be deferred or distributed. This same concept applies to fleet aircraft: the cost of flying the aircraft is spread over a period of decades, yielding lower costs per flight hour.
The five-year limit also prohibits incremental increases in capability. The Navy’s fourth-gen contract requires CAS companies to improve combat systems if requested, but fielding these improvements can take time. One expert said it takes three years to get a new CAS platform ready to fight. With a limited contract length, CAS companies have a small margin to incorporate new systems, even if the requirements are outlined in the contract. In addition, if these firms must buy expensive high-end combat systems or aircraft, the government may not see any savings if those costs cannot be spread over a longer time.
Enabling the Enablers
According to personnel at the Specialized and Proven Aircraft Program Office (PMA 226—which owns CAS and the programs for F-16 and F-5 adversaries), contract requirements are set by “the user,” meaning the agency that requests support.3 The user outlines the requirements for Naval Air Systems Command (NavAir), which cross checks these requirements with in-house expertise, the CAS companies, and DoD’s acquisitions gurus. NavAir then solidifies the contract’s requirements. This process can yield changes, but NavAir’s goal is to create a request that closely mirrors the customer’s needs.
This “customer sets the requirement” approach is the root of the squadron’s trouble with CAS adversaries. Currently, ATAC’s primary role is to provide aerial targets for surface ships. Other missions, like unit-level training or red air for fleet replacement squadron (FRS) students, are lower priorities, meaning ATAC is available only when not doing something “more important.” The same is true of the TacAir contract. Events such as Composite Training Unit Exercise (C2X), Air Wing Fallon (CVWF), and major war games are top priorities, while squadron training is at the bottom of the list.
The requirement for red air will grow until CAS accounts for the majority of adversary hours. Forthcoming contracts will specify CAS flight hours on the order of several years’ worth of fleet squadron execution.
Maintaining fleet adversary capacity must be a priority, as there are equipment, training, security, and logistic issues that a CAS company will always struggle to meet.
A Future for Adversaries
The NAWDC fourth-gen contract hopefully will be resolved by year end, and some kind of fourth-gen aircraft will appear at CVWF, TopGun, and the Fallon Officers’ Club in the near future. This contract will not provide the fleet squadron support required, however, and naval aviation leaders should consider the following going forward:
1. Support the squadrons. The Navy must improve CAS support at the squadron level. Exploring CAS services dedicated to the unit-level Strike-Fighter Advanced Readiness Program (SFARP) would be a great first step. However, there must be buy-in from the flight line. Whoever owns the contract requirements should include fleet weapons schools and squadron training officers and skippers in the discussion to determine what capabilities meet SFARP and unit-level training requirements.
2. More contracts. Awarding multiple contracts based on adversary mission areas—surface force support (C2X, ship’s exercises), CVWF, SFARP, and squadron unit-level training—will mean breaking down flight-hour demand and apportioning accordingly. A ship is under way occasionally, but aircraft fly unit-level training daily, creating a need for different types of adversary support. Although squadron training may be a “tier three” mission under the current contracts, it is a mission area executed every day.
3. Grow the adversary budget. For CAS providers to meet growing demand there must be money to pay them. Currently, ATAC operates on an indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity (IDIQ) contract—like an on-call provider. If the flight hour demand increases, the budget needs to grow accordingly, yielding a larger single-award or a multiaward IDIQ contract.
4. Commit to commitment. The five-year contract limit hurts more than it helps. Although it shows business sense on DoD’s part, CAS providers need stability so they can invest. A ten-year contract is a good start, but a 15-year award for some mission areas would allow industry to invest in current platforms and concurrently test follow-on solutions for future contracts.
CAS soon will be the majority adversary player; the Navy’s F-5 and F-16 fleets are small and unlikely to grow, and the Hornet adversary budget is modest. However, those factors do not invalidate the need for fleet adversaries.
Navy, Heal Thyself
Maintaining fleet adversary capacity must be a priority, as there are equipment, training, security, and logistic issues that a CAS company will always struggle to meet. Based on flight-hour execution, the adversary picture may seem rosy, but it does not match fleet squadron experience in which adversary FA-18 support is rare. Maintaining FA-18As is expensive and time-consuming, and there are not very many of them on the ramp. For fleet adversaries to succeed, even as CAS becomes the norm, naval aviation must consider the following ideas:
1. Buy more Rhinos. The FA-18C is starting to replace the Alphas on the adversary flight line, trading the Navy’s oldest airframes for slightly “less older” ones. The Charlies are exhausted from long service, and Rhinos are not far behind.4 The Rhino has to be on the menu for Navy Reserve adversary squadrons and NAWDC, but those commands will wait at the end of the line until the fleet can rebuild itself
2. Put the “C” back in VFC. In the alphabet soup of squadron designations, VFC means “composite fighter squadron,” or mixed aircraft types. Adding the best fleet-retired Charlies and Rhinos to VFC squadrons would give them an immediate fourth-gen capability. Growing VFC capacity and capability also will make those assignments desirable to pilots.
3. Buy new adversaries. The process of looking for a replacement has not begun, but when the time comes the Navy should pursue aircraft that are:
Newly built. These aircraft will have to operate for a long time and provide red air for Rhinos and F-35s. That demands high-end, modern fighters that can incorporate upgrades.
Dissimilar. Fighting another FA-18 is a lot of fun, but it can only get you so far. All Hornets perform similarly, and unless threat countries buy the Super Hornet, knowing how to defeat one is not really that useful. The replacement(s) for the F-5 and F-16 also needs to be dissimilar.
4. Resist the call of the virtual siren. Live virtual construction (LVC) is a cost-saving measure that uses synthetic “tracks” to provide radar or other sensor returns for blue air to shoot. This allows real adversary aircraft to augment their presentations, adding several virtual red aircraft to the mix. Naval aviation, however, must balance the perceived budgetary windfall of LVC with the need to provide a living, flying adversary fighter pilot to test blue systems, training, and tactics. A human adversary knows how to defeat blue shots, he knows when his shots are most effective, and he knows that sometimes he needs to “banzai” to the merge and riddle blue jets with bullet holes to drive home a learning point. If the Navy relies on simulated adversaries without the real-world people, environments, and training, blue pilots fight based on assumptions. When that happens, fighters die.
5. The “Firefox” option. The Navy could send a team of aviators, Clint Eastwood-style, into Russia to steal a squadron of Su-30s. For max impact, send a team to China to scoop up some J-10s, -15s, and -20s. Station them in the Conch Republic and give me orders there. This is probably the best option.
The impact of CAS companies is growing. The Navy must explore ways to grow the CAS adversary role, while providing adequate support at all levels. From the archer-and-arrow drill at sea to intense “1v1” combat, CAS companies will have to do it all. It is up to the Navy to give them a stable, long-term contract or series of contracts to meet fleet needs.
The Navy also must revitalize its organic adversary fleet. This means first improving the health of the carrier air wings. By banging the drum for more Rhinos and by creating an adversary force of new-build aircraft instead of fleet hand-me-downs, the Navy can maintain a stable of lethal aviators and aircraft while alleviating the flight hour and service life drain of in-house fleet red air support.
1. In preparing this article, I spoke with representatives from several CAS companies.
2. Department of Defense Manual 4160.21, vol. 4.
3. In preparing for this article, I spoke with NavAir staff. Similar to my conversations with CAS industry, I avoid directly quoting or naming people.
4. Like the Charlies, the FA-18E/F Super Hornet was built as a 6,000-hour airframe. Charlies have been extended beyond that, and the Rhino is going to have to be as well, as the older Rhinos are now approaching 6,000 hours.
Lieutenant Commander Scarbro is a department head in the world’s greatest strike-fighter squadron, VFA-32.
Listen to a Proceedings Podcast interview with this author about this article below: