Since the advent of flight decks, carrier-based aviation has proved indispensable to combat at sea and in the littorals. Yet, despite rigorous training and better technology, U.S. naval aviators can be surprised—even thrown off balance—at the start of hostilities by unanticipated technical or tactical prowess of the opponent. To prepare for that first encounter, aviators go up against surrogate adversaries, made as convincing as possible, in dissimilar air combat training (DACT).
In DACT, the surrogate flies a different aircraft type than the trainee, one that is expected to approximate a threat aircraft’s capabilities. For most of the past half century, DACT has used older U.S.-manufactured aircraft, often from another service’s inventory, including many that have long since retired from front-line service and have reached obsolescence. Most could be categorized as no better than third generation.
Today, however, potential adversary air forces have reached fourth- or even fifth-generation capability. Without a change in DACT, naval aviation will be inadequately prepared for the next matched competition.
The Risks of Inadequate Preparation
On 20 June 1944, when the sun passed below the horizon several hundred miles west of the Marianas Islands, an afternoon of fierce combat at sea was quieted. Task Force 58’s Air Group 16 had acquitted itself well, claiming sole credit for sinking one large enemy carrier, administering the final blow to sink a second, and delivering major bomb and torpedo hits to a third, rendering it incapable of launching or recovering aircraft. Amazingly, only three Air Group 16 aircraft were lost to Japanese fighters.1
That low combat loss was underwritten by the dominance of Task Force 58 fighter squadrons the day before, when they decimated the enemy fleet’s air arm. These naval aviators—at peak proficiency in aircraft that were, finally, superior to those of the Japanese—cleared the skies to make possible the resounding success achieved by Air Group 16’s dive-bombers and torpedo planes. It marked a complete turnabout from the first 12 months of the war, when U.S. Navy F4F Wildcats first encountered the Imperial Japanese Navy’s premier fighter aircraft.
Virtually unknown to the U.S. Navy prior to 7 December 1941, the A6M Type 0 Carrier Fighter Model 21, or “Zero,” “came as a distinct and disastrous surprise.”2 The aircraft’s reputation for near-mythical performance was further inflated by the excruciating losses to Zero attacks incurred by Navy torpedo squadrons at Midway. Following Midway, in sustained action around Guadalcanal from August through November, the loss ratio in air-to-air combat was approximately 31 Wildcats to 25 Zeros, a better than one-to-one kill ratio in favor of the Zero.3
For U.S. naval aviators to claw back to a substantially better exchange ratio, the Zero had to be flown in controlled scenarios to demystify its performance advantages and discern its shortcomings. By sheer happenstance, the opportunity presented itself with the discovery of a near-intact Zero near the Aleutian island of Akutan. The pilot of the flak-damaged plane had attempted an improvised landing and perished when the aircraft somersaulted upon touching down.
When the plane was recovered by the U.S. Navy in July 1942, engineers found “it was built like a fine watch.”Wing and fuselage were constructed as a single unitized assembly to trim overall weight. Covering its thin dur-alumin skin was a sheer anticorrosion lacquer coating, obviating the need for eight pounds of paint that reduced the Wildcat’s speed by 15 mph. The most pronounced weight reduction appeared to have been achieved by eliminating armor surrounding the cockpit.4
In mock combat against U.S. Navy fighters, the elegant simplicity of the Zero bespoke a design for the offensive. Its top-end speed advantage was supplemented by an impressive climb rate and superior maneuverability at lower speeds.5 Of particular importance for the tactics being formulated from these discoveries, the Zero exhibited unusual stiffness in high-speed turns—especially in high-speed descending turns to the right—requiring extremely forceful control stick pressure. And it became apparent that because of its float-type carburetor, a sharp nose-down dive would result in the engine abruptly quitting. An adversary aircraft’s unique performance attributes finally were being cataloged for future combat.
With these revelations, U.S. pilots could begin to recognize tactics employed by their Japanese opponents to exploit their aircraft’s design traits—and counter those moves.
With only one flyable Zero, however, opportunities for regular fleet-wide training against the vaunted adversary were nonexistent. Notations on the Zero’s performance in tests were disseminated by bulletin to fleet squadrons, but the challenge was transferring information from the written page to instantaneous reactions in the cockpit in a few seconds of swirling aerial combat.
A generation later, U.S. Navy fighter squadrons had devolved into two distinct missions and training philosophies: air-to-air dogfighting, exemplified by F-8 Crusader units; and a missile-armed interceptor mission embraced by F-4 Phantom units. Entering aerial combat over North Vietnam, U.S. naval aviators found the contest more challenging than anticipated when they confronted equipment, training, and occasionally pilots from the People’s Republic of China or the Soviet Union. Enemy tactics that relied on ground control intercepts and operations from sanctuary made enemy MiG-17, MiG-19, and MiG-21 fighters a pernicious threat.
The mismatch in training to the new and unfamiliar threat over North Vietnam yielded a statistical disadvantage in exchange rates for U.S. naval aviators. By the end of 1966, F-8s had scored four MiG shoot-downs for the confirmed loss of three F-8 fighters. By war’s end, F-8s had accumulated 14 more kills, with one possible loss to the North Vietnamese.6 From 1966 to 1968, F-8s attained 18 kills in 23 clashes with MiGs, producing an efficiency rating of 0.72. In approximately the same period, F-4s produced an efficiency rating of just 0.30 kills per engagement.7
Such meager statistics compelled Navy leaders to draft Captain Frank Ault to investigate. His 1969 Ault Report determined a schoolhouse was needed to revive and proliferate fighter expertise that had lapsed as the Navy’s technology and air warfare mission migrated toward radar-controlled, beyond-visual-range missile intercepts.1
Augmenting the Ault Report were concurrent findings from a classified Defense Intelligence Agency program that matched Navy F-8, F-4, and A-4 aircraft in head-to-head maneuvers against a captured MiG-21 over a test range in Nevada.8 At least in part, those tests prompted a central tenet of the Ault Report: An essential ingredient in turning around the Navy’s abysmal aerial combat record would be the adoption of formalized DACT.
The A-4 and, eventually, the F-5E/F provided threat performance more equivalent to the MiG-21. When they were incorporated into DACT the results were eye-opening: From 1965 to 1968, F-4s delivered a 2-to-1 kill ratio, but by 1972, with an uptick in MiG activity and engagement frequency, F-4s yielded a 12-to-1 kill ratio.9 The heightened realism afforded by dissimilar aircraft could not be overestimated. Yet, the aircraft used for DACT were U.S. designs and not truly representative of the performance differences the enemy was trained to exploit in its designs.
DACT attained its most authentic delineation with the stand up of “Constant Peg” in the late 1970s. Following Vietnam, senior leaders in the Navy and the Air Force recognized that adversary training, particularly against dissimilar adversaries, should be a priority as the United States sharpened its focus on an increasingly capable Soviet threat. Constant Peg was the perfect example of “Red Air,” organized under the Air Force as the 4477th Test and Evaluation Squadron at the Tonopah Test Range.
At its peak, the unit operated 26 MiGs, 10 of which were contemporary MiG-23s. Squadron composition and scheduled training evolutions reflected a joint mentality, with naval aviators representing as many as a quarter of the pilot instructors.10 Navy trainees included TOPGUN students and, as training budgets allowed, fleet pilots from Naval Air Stations (NASs) Miramar and Lemoore. “Seeing Soviet fighters up close and having a chance to dogfight” greatly enhanced aviators’ confidence and ability to fight through the “buck fever” of an initial encounter.11
With the Soviet air threat receding in the late 1980s, Constant Peg was disestablished. Nothing today approaches the realism offered by this program.
A seismic shift is occurring in the nature of the threat, remaking the aerial battle space and exposing U.S. naval aviators to more capable opposition manifested by an ascendant China and revanchist Russia.
One-third of the 1,700 combat aircraft of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and People’s Liberation Army Naval Air Force (PLANAF) are recent fighters comparable to early model F-16s. Among them are numerous derivatives of the Sukhoi Su-27, originally procured from Russia then copied and modernized, as well as 76 modernized Su-30 Flanker derivatives produced indigenously as the Shenyang J-16 and Shenyang J-15 carrier-based fighter.12
The recent debut of two new designs, the Chengdu J-20 (bearing a likeness to the F-22) and the Shenyang J-31 (closely resembling the F-35) suggest China is on a path to transition its fighter force from a third- to a fourth- and fifth-generation capability. Analysts suggest the J-20 may be intended to seek out and shoot down surveillance and electronic combat aircraft, while the smaller Shenyang J-31 may be headed for operational deployment at sea with the PLANAF.13 The capabilities embodied in these new designs easily surpass those of the adversary surrogates currently employed in U.S. Navy training.
The Chinese military’s publication Kongjun Bao alludes to major reforms in PLAAF and PLANAF training, with the stated intention of fighting and defeating a peer air capability. Multi-aircraft and combined-arms exercises routinely are flown to hone cooperative tactics that exploit distance and sanctuary advantage, augmented by networked effects and electronic warfare to feign, distract, and blind opponents to close for “free-air combat.”14
In the face of the improving threat, U.S. Navy adversary training is at risk of irrelevance from equipment obsolescence and lack of long-term recapitalization in the portfolio of naval aviation needs. The inadequacy of the equipment makes training a “fight down” to lesser capability for fleet aviators and reinforces a tendency toward complacency. Adequate preparation for the robust threats expected to appear toward the end of the next decade must include a renewed focus on adversary training and increased priority to resourcing representative threats.
Training for strike-fighter advanced readiness is allocated in the main to fighter composite squadrons at NAS Fallon and NAS Oceana flying a mix of F-5s and F/A-18Cs and to the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center (NAWDC) flying F-16A/Bs. Another squadron equipped with F-5s at NAS Key West shares duties for initial Red Air opposition for fleet readiness training. Though adversary trainers are steeped in adversary tactics, emphasis on DACT has diminished over time.
Incredibly, 45 years after they were introduced to the DACT syllabus at TOPGUN, F-5s still make up more than half the inventory of adversary aircraft. Little has changed in their 1950s-era design beyond structural refurbishment for life extension and the addition of an electronic box that stores and retransmits a threat-like jamming signal. To date, none of these F-5s has incorporated a modern active electronically scanned array radar that typically would be found in a fourth-generation fighter operated or sold by Russia or China. The remainder of the dissimilar adversary inventory is made up of approximately 14 early model F-16A/Bs operated at NAWDC, which will reach their service life expiration within six years. Navy studies conducted more than a decade ago determined the F-5 exhibits inadequate capability for beyond-visual-range adversary training against MiG-23 and later threat systems, while the F-16s lack “powerful enough radar systems to adequately simulate the threat.”15
This essentially static condition for adversary training has been sufficient for many years mainly because U.S. air dominance has not been challenged. That might not be the case in the future. A renewed emphasis on adversary training, with particular attention to fourth- and even fifth-generation DACT, is in order. One path for revitalizing adversary training could trace three distinct steps:
Take near-term programming and budgeting action to expand contractor adversary services. Waiting for F-5 inventory retirement perpetuates an already inadequate adversary presentation. The Navy should resist the lure of low operating cost that might be obtained with third-generation aircraft replacements and instead mandate at minimum a fourth-generation presentation that avoids specifying an aircraft type for the adversary role. Contractors must provide sufficient inventory numbers and reliability to guarantee availability of squadron-level adversary opposition. An essential adjunct to fourth-generation capability would be the contractor’s ability to present adversary tactics that include beyond-visual-range engagement, electronic combat, and networked collaboration.16
Invite extended rotational deployments of fighter squadrons to NAS Fallon or NAS Key West from the Royal Air Force and the Force Maritime de l’Aeronautique Navale. Rather than sporadic, limited encounters with allied aircraft while on tour or goodwill visits, the Navy could obtain useful routine collaboration that might reduce its flight-hour expenditures and extend service life on its limited numbers of F-16A/Bs with consistent, regular appearances by Typhoons and Rafales for air wing predeployment evolutions.
Update the F-16A/B inventory. Several foreign F-16 operators have adopted openly available enhancements that will provide updated avionics and extended airframe service life. Entering into a similar program, tailored to U.S. Navy adversary needs, may be the best opportunity to refresh the F-16 inventory at NAS Fallon.17 Raising the performance of Navy F-16s to a more capable fourth-generation-plus capability would bring those adversary aircraft more in line with emerging threats, increase training realism, and enhance NAWDC’s credibility as the adversary tactics authority and standardization agent for servicewide adversary training.
These actions will require a reprioritization of adversary training and increased funding. A reemergent highly capable threat demands no less.
1. CDR E. M. Snowden, USN, Commanding Air Group 16, End of Tour Report (USS Lexington [CV-16], June 1944).
2. John Lundstrom, The First Team and the Guadalcanal Campaign (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1994), 533.
3. Lundstrom, The First Team, 447.
4. Richard Wilcox, “The Zero: The First Famed Japanese Fighter Captured Intact Reveals its Secrets to U.S. Navy Aerial Experts,” Life Magazine, 9 November 1942, 86.
5. Edward M. Young, F4F Wildcat vs. A6M Zero-Sen (Oxford, UK: Osprey Publishing, 2013), 34.
6. Peter Mersky, F-8 Crusader Units of the Vietnam War (London: Osprey Publishing, 1998), 101.
7. John B. Nichols and Barrett Tillman, On Yankee Station (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1987), 77.
8. Defense Intelligence Agency, Have Doughnut–Tactical, vol. II (Wright-Patterson Air Force Base: Foreign Technology Division of the Air Force Systems Command, 1 August 1969, declassified 23 March 2000), 2-1.
9. Defense Intelligence Agency, Have Doughnut–Tactical, 79.
10. COL John Manclark, USAF (Ret.), former commanding officer 4477th Test and Evaluation Squadron, Interview with Ernest Snowden, 20 February 2018.
11. COL Gaillard R. Peck Jr., USAF (Ret.), America’s Secret MiG Squadron (Oxford, UK: Osprey Publishing, 2012), 262, 263.
12. Sebastien Roblin, “China’s Air Force: 1,700 Combat Aircraft Ready for War,” The National Interest, 28 October 2017.
13. Roblin, “China’s Air Force.”
14. Lyle J. Morris and Eric Heginbotham, “China’s PLAAF Pilot Training Program Undergoes Major Overhaul,” The National Interest, 27 October 2016.
15. J. Ryan McLaughlin, “Optimizing Adversary Training and the Structure of the Navy Adversary Fleet,” master’s thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, September 2013, 9.
16. Amy McCullough, “Red Air For Hire,” Air Force Magazine (Arlington, VA: Air Force Association, April/May 2018), 34.
17. “U.S. Air Force Authorizes Extended Service Life for F-16,” news release, Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company, 12 April 2017.