The US Air Force plans to release a solicitation to industry for a massive 40,000 hours of contracted aggressor support training at 12 different bases. It comes following a year-long experiment at Nellis AFB, Nevada, for Draken International.
The multi-award contract, which is expected in January 2019, is huge and will have the existing contractor air service providers scrambling to win contracts.
The USAF says it will release a draft solicitation to industry in July as it seeks to provide the additional adversary air and support at 12 different bases. Nellis AFB alone will take 11,250 hours of the requested flight hours from the planned total 36,231 hours annually.
As well as Nellis, other installations that will benefit from additional red air comprise Seymour Johnson AFB, North Carolina; JB Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii; Holloman AFB, New Mexico; Eglin AFB, Florida; JB Langley-Eustis, Virginia; Tyndall AFB, Florida; Kingsley Field, Oregon; Luke AFB, Arizona; Hill AFB, Utah and Tucson Airport, Arizona.
The increased use of contractor owned, contractor operated (COCO) adversary aircraft has been building for several years. Air Combat Command (ACC) has conducted an analysis of Adversary Air (ADAIR) capabilities to fill a ‘significant gap’ in its training requirements. The service reportedly suffered from a shortage of adversary 3,000 sorties at Nellis AFB, Nevada, during 2016 and that number is expected to rise as F-35 training ramps up.
The USAF currently only operates two aggressor squadrons; the 18th AGRS at Eielson AFB, Alaska, and the 64th AGRS at Nellis. The 65th AGRS, that flew F-15C/Ds, disbanded in 2014. Draken International and Discovery Air Defence Services are both offering contractor air services, along with Textron, which in 2016 purchased the former ATAC (Airborne Tactical Advantage Co).
The service first evaluated the use of commercial ‘Red Air’ when it awarded a one-year contract to Draken International last September. During the ‘proof-of-concept’ evaluation Draken’s radar-equipped Skyhawks have been flying sorties from Nellis in support of the USAF Weapons School and the F-35 Joint Operational Test Team.
The latest RFI is seeking information regarding supersonic aircraft that are equipped with radar and limited sensor and datalink capabilities — it points to more F-16s.
Draken International’s impressive arsenal of aircraft makes it the largest private operator of tactical aircraft in the world. The company was founded as recently as 2011 when it evolved from the Black Diamond Jet Team, an airshow performer owned by entrepreneur Jared Isaacman.
The company owns a fleet of aircraft including 11 A-4 Skyhawks, nine Aermacchi MB339CBs, 27 MiG-21s, and 21 L-159s. An important step in building the company was the acquisition of eight A-4Ks from New Zealand in 2012. This comprises nearly the full fleet of Royal New Zealand Air Force Skyhawks that became surplus after the type’s retirement in that country. Extra Skyhawks were added to the fleet in 2014 when Draken purchased six A-4Ns that were formerly flown by BEA Systems at Wittmund, Germany. Currently the L-159, acquired from the Czech Republic, is entering the Draken fleet.
As reported in our December 2015 issue: ‘We specifically purchased jets that are rich in modern capabilities. In the case of our A-4K Skyhawks, they are equipped with the AN/APG-66 radar, AN/ALR-66 radar warning receiver, countermeasures, electronic attack pods, head-up display, hands on throttle and stick (HOTAS) controls, MFD and a 1553 databus. For all purposes, our A-4Ks are outfitted similarly to an F-16A but at dramatically lower operating costs’, explained Isaacman, who is licensed to fly most of the types in his inventory.
‘We also purchased 21 L-159E fighter jets. The L-159E is equipped with the Selex Grifo-L radar and attack software suite. They are a modern, virtually brand-new fourth-generation fighter aircraft with extremely low operational costs. In both cases, the A-4 and L-159 enable Draken to provide tactically relevant adversary support but at dramatically lower costs than a comparable military F-16 or F-15 fighter.’
But it’s not just the impressive fleet that makes it a unique company. The pilot roster is equal impressive and includes top names in the industry, like Lt Col Jerry ‘Jive’ Kerby (ret.) and CAPT Dale ‘Snort’ Snodgrass (ret.), both of whom were in from the beginning and were part of the Black Diamond Jet Team. Both are now in a team full of experienced aviators with backgrounds ranging from weapons school graduates, TOPGUN graduates, to those with a history flying in aggressor squadrons.
The experience of the pilots is key when it comes to the type of missions the company offers to its clients. Next to Red Air support, similar to the work of aggressor squadrons, Draken also delivers air-to-ground, fleet missile defense support, and aerial refueling via a ‘buddy-buddy system’ on the A-4s.
Not so busy at the moment are the ‘Fishbeds’, as Isaacman observes: ‘We do not operate our MiG-21s. They are very low-time airframes and they include the latest bis models. Unfortunately, there has been very little demand from our customers for this type series. The MiG-21 is not known for its maneuverability or endurance. Not to mention the radar capabilities are very limited. That stated, they are an extremely low-cost supersonic fighter jet and Draken has nearly 30 of them! They would make a great platform for various saturation scenarios, but as of now, there has been almost no demand for them. They are all stored in our Lakeland facility.’
The purchase of the light but capable L-159 is an interesting move. While a rival company is considering buying ex-Israeli F-16s, Draken continues to offer a cheaper solution with aircraft that it says offer similar fourth-generation capabilities. When asked why Isaacman isn’t aiming for the ‘Viper’ he explains: ‘We are very familiar with these aircraft [Israeli F-16s] and have inspected them several times. Most of our pilots have a lot of experience and admiration for the F-16. It is a great fighter aircraft. That being said, there are many reasons why an F-16 is a terrible platform for the commercial air services industry. Primarily, our industry only exists based on cost savings. That is why militaries from around the world want our service. Globally, the government budgets are shrinking and it doesn’t always make sense for F-16s, F-15s, Eurofighters, etc to train against each other.
‘With Draken we can provide fourth-generation adversaries (electronic attack pods, radars, etc) for a fifth of the operating cost of an F-16 or F-15. That is the value of our service. We deliver enhanced training for a much, much lower cost. If we were to purchase F-16s, we would not be able to offer any cost savings at all. Not to mention, the F-16As for sale in Israel are some of the oldest ones still in service and have virtually no upgrades. So that would mean our military customers would not be saving any money. They would be paying essentially the same cost as they do for their own F-16s, but with dramatically lower capabilities. It really just doesn’t make sense. If the US government wanted to keep flying against F-16s, they would not need to turn to private industry to accomplish the service. They could simply use any of the hundreds of F-16s that are stored in the boneyard that are all better equipped than the F-16As that are for sale in Israel. Draken already operates fourth-generation fighter aircraft in our A-4K and L-159E Advanced Light Combat Aircraft (ALCA), but at dramatically lower costs than old F-16As. We deliver the best value in terms of capabilities and price. That is what is really driving the demand for commercial air services in the global market.’
The future for contracted air services seems very positive while governments continue to invest in next-generation hardware while still axing training assets like the 65th Aggressor Squadron, inactivated at Nellis in 2014. ‘The future is definitely very bright. This has been our most demanding year in terms of flight hours and contracts served. In August, we were generating sorties from five different operating locations at the same time. That includes locations in Europe. So we already have expanded heavily in the US and internationally. We are continuing to procure additional aircraft that provide tactically relevant training while still achieving our primary mission of cost savings. It has been an unbelievable year and we do not anticipate things slowing down anytime soon’, Isaacman adds.
Draken announced a new adversary support contract from the USAF in 2015, using its A-4Ks and new L-159s to generate cost savings for the Air Force by preserving its F-16s and F-15s. ‘Personally, I am really looking forward to integrating with and complementing the USAF Nellis-based aggressors, said Col Terry ‘Stretch’ Scott, a recently-retired USAF F-22 pilot and Nellis Detachment Commander for Draken. Isaacman added: ‘We feel we are absolutely ready and fortunate to have this monumental opportunity. This is our time to demonstrate the capabilities of our service while still achieving considerable cost savings for the US Air Force.’ Frank Crebas
For a civilian company to operate an ex-military fighter complete with ejection seats and external hardpoints requires a great deal of regulation and planning. Canadian contractor Discovery Air Defence Services knows this story well. Canada was one of the first NATO countries to use civilian contracts as a solution to tight defense budgets, but it was no easy ride. It began by using a number of US and Canadian companies, but it was becoming clear that the military’s demand was greater than the initial contractors could provide. Furthermore, the US companies were unintentionally operating without Air Operators’ Certificates, so had no right to conduct commercial activities in Canada. The flag was raised that they were operating under the ‘lighter-touch’ Experimental category, US FAA Part 91, but while this opens doors in the US, this wasn’t enough for Canada. A study of Canadian rules revealed that, although the Minister of Transport has responsibility, if the matter relates to defense then it falls under the Minister of National Defence or Chief of the Defence Staff, so the military had to take a second look at how US companies were operating in Canadian airspace on defense business. Transport Canada then washed its hands of it as it was rightly decreed a military matter, but the ‘commercial service’ angle was a sticking point and a regulatory headache.
After a mountain of paperwork, the resultant Memorandum of Understanding was unprecedented and, to a large extent, it’s what sets Discovery Air Defence apart today.
Formerly known as Top Aces, the company was awarded the newly drawn contract in 2005 to provide the Canadian Forces with aggressor training. Now operating as Discovery Air Defence (DA Defence), it acquired its A-4N Skyhawks through the takeover of Advanced Training Systems International (ATSI) of Mesa, Arizona, in December 2013. These ex-Israeli Air Force jets joined a fleet of ex-Luftwaffe Alpha Jets in the training arena, and highlighted the company’s ambition to make a footprint into Europe.
Alongside the acquisition of the A-4s, DA Defence recognized that the aggressor-based air support to defense operational training (ASDOT) market was working well within North America, yet Europe had not really caught up with the benefits that it can bring. This is especially true in light of so many cutbacks and fewer fighters, yet such training is still being undertaken in-house using costly front-line fighters, and eating into precious spares and fatigue lives.
While DA Defence continues its work in Germany under the gaze of other European nations, its strategic approach means it is also looking to the future. It claims that its current fleet is able to provide flight profiles and dynamics as well as utilize added systems to replicate 70-80 per cent of modern fighter characteristics. But, with the advent of the F-35, military training will have to step up yet another gear, and DA Defence is ready. It is set to acquire F-16 Fighting Falcons from an undisclosed source with the knowledge of the benefits such a platform would bring fourth- and fifth-generation fighter pilot training. It is understood to be aiming for four single-seat Block 10 F-16A models and two F-16B models, with plans for 10 in total, with the jets in question being described as having a ‘decent, low level of flying hours’. The potential fleet of ‘Vipers’ will be offered as aggressor trainers for NATO allies, as a capable threat at a fraction of the cost.
With the much-publicized costs of the F-35, such a move it set to add weight to the company’s argument against pitting the same types against each other, and the astronomical finances involved in an F-35 v F-35 scenario. ‘No one really knows the full cost of flying the F-35 at this point’, said Brandt. ‘We can look at the Eurofighter and F-22 and see that they are at least five, six, seven times our operating cost. The F-35 is expected to be more than that, and it makes no sense to use costly flight hours on negative F-35 v F-35 scenarios, so we hope our services will become ever more attractive.’
The firm’s Marketing Director Garrick Ngai is relishing the prospect, but knows there is a little way to go. ‘The F-16 is a US military asset so it comes down to State Department approval. It’s a policy issue. I can say it’s a demilitarized aircraft but it still says ‘F-16’ on the piece of paper and that is seen as a warplane. It poses the question of, if this goes through, what does it mean for other future demilitarized aircraft? The jets themselves wouldn’t be coming from surplus USAF stocks, but there are enough ITAR- (International Traffic in Arms Regulations) controlled parts and technical data involved that it needs to go through the US State Department.’
This process has been ongoing for around 18 months. ‘We are stuck in a chicken and egg situation’, continued Garrick. ‘The US State Department is saying that we can’t really release this to you and approve the transfer because you don’t have a contract, whereas our customers are saying I can’t give you a contract because you don’t have the aircraft.’
While remaining guarded about what those future contracts could be, Garrick did, however, explain that DA Defence is looking to fulfill the next Canadian contract with what he called ‘a very high-quality product’. The Canadian deal is subject to an RfP published at the end of July 2015 for the next round of provision, and its wording includes a requirement for a more capable, radar-equipped aircraft over the next 15 years, with an eye on F-35 training requirements. With up to 40 F-35s due to form the Canadian front line in the future, questions are being asked regarding fulfilling its aggressor-training role. ‘We have to submit in January 2016 and we will be offering a very high-end solution’, said Garrick.
DA Defence is now proving its mettle in the European air combat theater for real. ‘We have already started to change the face of air combat’, states Garrick. ‘Unlike our competitors in the US, it’s what we bring to the table… Look at the aircraft we have now and the investment we have made in them, the level of their airworthiness. Now look at the comfort level of our customers. Our customers know that we fly with them on their level. That changes everything. In the near future, when we get our supersonic fighters, we will step it up again as a civilian company able to offer this kind of training. We will change the game again.’
It makes good sense to test this ‘marketeering’ against the customer itself. It is widely said that ‘the customer is always right’, so what does the end user have to say about the business? Sealing the stamp of approval, the Luftwaffe’s ‘Richthofen’ Tactical Flying Group commander, Lt Col Gero Finke was complimentary of the company’s presence. ‘We are very happy having DA Defence here in Germany. There are great benefits of having them on the base from a briefing and debriefing point of view. It has proved to have a positive impact on our training, which is a good way to work now ready for when we step up our weapons training here at WIttmund and transition from a Tactical Flying Group to full Tactical Fighter Wing status next year. We profit from the synergy effects of the company having such good pilots; their experience counts, and we get on very well with everyone in the company. The A-4 is an excellent platform for our Red Air presentation and there are talks of an even better, radar-equipped aircraft coming on line. This would be very beneficial for us for the future. We look forward to a long future of working together in this excellent relationship.’ Rich Cooper
Since 1994, the Virginia-based Airborne Tactical Advantage Company, better known as ATAC, has been providing a valuable contractor air service for the US Navy. ATAC IAI Kfirs and Hawker Hunters have become regular inhabitants of various Navy fighter squadrons’ parking ramps as they provide a range of training services to both the Fleet and to fighter squadrons. ATAC has trained US Navy, Marine, Air Force and Army aircrews, ship crews, and combat controllers in the air-to-ship, air-to-air, and air-to-ground arenas. From six bases worldwide, including the US, Europe and the Pacific, ATAC has provided over 40,000 hours of tactical flying support, and is the largest company currently contracted to provide services to the US military. Indeed, ATAC has a contract with the US Navy that continues until 2020.
ATAC is the only civilian organization approved to train the US Navy’s elite Fighter Weapons School TOPGUN, and it has also participated in Carrier Strike Group training, ‘Red Flag’, as well as the famous RIMPAC exercises and Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) training in Europe. In an age of budget austerity, training with a company such as ATAC can clearly save millions of dollars in training and readiness costs while extending the life of front-line aircraft assets.
Matt ‘Race’ Bannon is ATAC’s director of strategy and marketing, and he is typical of the high standard of employee at the company. Bannon is a retired Lt Col TOPGUN graduate with over 22 years of service with the US Navy and USAF combined, and with over 6,000 flight hours across a multitude of aircraft from the Navy and Air Force, including in excess of 2,500 hours flying the F-14 Tomcat.
He told Combat Aircraft: ‘Broadly speaking, contractor air service is a really smart and important solution for the military to alleviate shortfalls in their adversary-training requirement, while also reducing budgets. When I was a young F-14 fighter pilot 25 years ago or so, you’d see young enlisted personnel out cutting the grass on the base. The obvious question is ‘why would you use these highly trained military professionals that are getting paid all that money and not use them for their intended mission?’ So, that kind of thing got outsourced and slowly over the years the military has realized that it can also bring in contractor air services to plug training shortfalls and preserve those expensive and valuable front-line assets. By not exposing these front-line assets to an unintended use, such as to provide ‘in-house’ Red Air (aggressors), you can save the fatigue life on those assets and avoid having to fly them to the boneyard far earlier than originally planned.’
This model is one that has seen ATAC achieve significant success with the US Navy. Bannon continued: ‘I fly out of TOPGUN all the time and have done so for the last 12 years. ATAC has been part of every TOPGUN class for the last 10-plus years and we’ve been used very efficiently in their scenarios. The Navy has training shortfalls everywhere and they figure out how to best use ATAC. For example, Fleet Replenishment Squadron (FRS) training. The FRS squadrons have so many sorties to fly and limited resources, so they in particular have identified huge value in contract air services. That training is always local, and using their own FRS assets to fly as adversaries increases their sortie count by at least twofold. Two days ago I was flying out of Point Mugu, California, supporting VMFAT-101 [Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 101 ‘Sharpshooters’] out of MCAS Miramar. I flew down from 200 miles away, flew all the runs required and they completed their training event using half the aircraft they would have done if they’d done it in house. We do the same thing with VFA-106 [Strike Fighter Squadron 106] and 122 all the time — they need and appreciate the support.
‘Our contract supports a minimum of 4,500 flying hours annually using our Hunters and Kfirs, which we supply to primarily get Carrier Strike Battle Groups ready to deploy. I just came back from flying in Jacksonville, Florida, where we were working with the USS Truman battle group as part of its readiness program for a forthcoming deployment. They have a multitude of requirements to meet in order to be able to deploy, and part of what we do is to test ship capabilities. So my last flight out there was to simulate an anti-ship missile — I was flying at nearly supersonic speed at 200ft above the waves and the ship had to simulate targeting me.’
It is interesting to note that the majority of early FRS adversary training requires fairly benign setups, and can easily be achieved using a platform such as the Kfir that offers far lower running costs over a front-line Super Hornet, for example. Matt Bannon adds: ‘I’m not an Su-30 ‘Flanker’ flying up at 40,000ft trying to kill their fighters. I’m more of a MiG-21 on a DLI (deck-launched intercept). If you ask a fighter pilot what they want I’m sure they’d say a Su-30 or similar, but that’s going to cost you a lot of money, so that model sees the value of using a contractor air service being eroded.’
ATAC prides itself on the pedigree of its pilots. Everyone knows that a fast jet in the hands of a wily, experienced fighter pilot is going to be a force to be reckoned with. Matt Bannon adds: ‘Every one of our pilots is either a US Navy, Marine Corps or USAF fighter pilot; most are instructors and 70 per cent of them are either TOPGUN, aggressor squadron or Weapons School patch-wearers. That’s the type of person we have sought after. We have a five-year TOPGUN instructor who leads our flying out there at NAS Fallon, and it’s hugely important to have the credibility and experience to perform at that high level. TOPGUN debriefs are extremely critical of even the smallest mistakes, so you always have to operate at that same level.
‘We have 26 aircraft that account for 95 per cent of our flying and that’s with the Navy, with the exception of the L-39s that provide JTAC training for the Marines. We have supported the USAF, but we are currently mainly focused on the Navy.’
The Navy has clearly realized the potential for using contractor air support, but until recently the USAF only modestly embraced such services. That was until it was announced in late September that Draken International had been awarded a contract to provide such services at Nellis AFB. Matt Bannon comments: ‘We have seen signals of an increased demand from the USAF and that it is willing and moving towards contractor air services — we feel it’s the next burgeoning market.’
Indeed, the deactivation of the 65th Aggressor Squadron at Nellis last year, plus the decreasing ability to ‘bring in’ Red Air from the combat air forces, has surely sparked a shortfall in available aggressors at Nellis to support operational testing, Weapons School and ‘Red Flag’ activities.
ATAC’s current assets clearly provide suitable performance for TOPGUN and FRS training support, but what of the higher-end threat? ‘The USAF has radar-equipped fourth-generation platforms such as the F-16 for the aggressor role, but it can also be a matter of mass — needing more aircraft flying around out there. That’s what we see as the eloquent solution provided by contractor air services. If they set the requirement too high, the cost per flight hour would be prohibitive. If they set the requirement for mass and they’re willing to accept a non-radar aircraft that offers the required endurance and speed, then that is the sweet spot. So by combining a Weapons School graduate in a ‘Viper’ with a lower-end type replicating a MiG-21 or a striker, that can alleviate the shortfalls that air forces have, and that is part and parcel of what the Navy has realized.’
One of the additional, rapidly emerging, requirements is adversary support for the growing F-35 community. It is a fact that ATAC is readily aware of and prepared for. ‘It’s a huge requirement’, says Bannon. ‘Fifth-gen fighters have immense capability, but their sortie requirements include many aggressor aircraft to test those capabilities to the full.’
Looking towards the F-35 training requirement, as well as emerging training requests for proposals from around the globe, ATAC, like its competitors, is constantly evaluating potential platforms to meet higher-end requirements. ‘We can’t just go and buy US aircraft, we have to go to foreign markets. Coincidentally, foreign markets have some of the threat aircraft the US military is interested in. It’s pretty obvious who the threats are and we can find aircraft that provide a large percentage of the things they are after, be it radar emissions, speed, capability. We have a team constantly evaluating aircraft worldwide’, says Bannon. ‘ATAC would go out and find, acquire and use aircraft depending on the contract. We wait for the requirement and then we go and buy the aircraft.’
The extracts on the three COCO air service providers first appeared in the December 2015 issue of Combat Aircraft.