The history of the USAF Aggressors – what can the RAAF learn from the USAF experience?
By Rodney Barton
The Vietnam War hammered home a lot of lessons during the conduct of the air campaign against North Vietnam. The USAF suffered from a woeful air-to-air loss ratio in the early stages of the war, especially when compared to the previous Korean War results.
A combination of factors led to the loss of American aircrew lives, with a distinct lack of training in within-visual-range (WVR) air combat, a dependence on new air-to-air missile technology (to the point of not carrying an internal gun), and a culture that was focused on dealing with the Soviet bomber threat.
The USAF air-to-air performance in 1967 and 1968 was captured in a series of reports called Projects RED BARON and CHECO, with detailed analysis of each aerial engagement in North Vietnam. The outcome of these reports led the USAF to develop multiple lines of effort, firstly through establishment of an ‘Aggressor’ program in 1972 with T-38 Talons at Nellis Air Force Base. The Aggressor role was to provide dissimilar air combat training (DACT) for visiting units, replicating the MiG-17 and MiG-21 threats to better prepare aircrew for Vietnam.
In 1975, Colonel Richard ‘Moody’ Suter led the development of a large-force employment exercise called RED FLAG at Nellis AFB, utilising the significant Nellis airspace with the Aggressor units providing the air threat. This exercise proved valuable to junior aircrew in acquiring the ‘first ten combat missions’ exposure designed to increase their survivability in future combat. Now held four times a year, to this day RED FLAG represents the epitome of large-force employment training with intimate Aggressor support.
The key centrepiece of this activity is the Nellis Test and Training Range (NTTR – see ADBR’s Nov-Dec 2020 issue). The large range area, remote access, security posture (particularly given Department of Energy usage), and world-class instrumentation with ground-based threat emitters provides the ideal training environment to conduct high-end test and training at the highest classification level.
The end of the Vietnam war led to a surplus of F-5 fighter aircraft which, rather than being disposed of, provided impetus to stand up multiple Aggressor squadrons across the globe. Nellis hosted the 64th and 65th Aggressor Squadrons, with United States Air Forces Europe (USAFE) receiving the 527th Aggressor Squadron at Alconbury in the UK, and Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) establishing the 26th Aggressor Squadron at Clark AFB Philippines.
The key customers for Aggressor support during the 1970s and 1980s were the combat air force units based around the globe. with the centre of gravity at Nellis AFB. Apart from hosting RED FLAG, Nellis is also home to the USAF Fighter Weapons School program and USAF Operational Test and Evaluation (OT&E) activities.
The Aggressor units were also known for their base trips and exercise support, with the RAAF being an early beneficiary at Cope Thunder in the 1980s. The proliferation of MiG-21s throughout the world illustrated the utility of the F-5-based Aggressor training, providing aircrew with the appropriate threat replication.
It is not only the air-to-air threat replication that provided benefit to combat air units, but also the knowledge imparted in the academic programs developed by the Aggressor aircrew. The ‘Gomers’ as they were called gained high security clearances, developed strong relationships with the intelligence community, and worked closely with the Foreign Material Exploitation programs to become experts in threat knowledge, doctrine, and replication.
To become certified Aggressors, the Gomers must undertake an intense period of study in a subject area of threat expertise and present their brief to the Aggressor squadron. A successful brief will lead to the award of the Russian Ruble coin to symbolise their Aggressor certification.
The Aggressor role is not just the sole domain of fighter pilots – there is also the requirement for Command and Control and intelligence personnel. During Aggressor missions, ‘Baron’ controllers naturally replicated the Soviet doctrine of Ground Controller Intercept (GCI) close control of fighter assets, and to this day still play a vital role.
Intelligence personnel assigned to the Aggressors provide the vital conduit to the relevant agencies and intelligence required to enhance the threat academic program, and contribute to threat replication development. These personnel can also become certified Aggressors, providing threat academics in relevant areas.
The late 1980’s saw major tectonic shifts in the geopolitical environment with the fall of the Berlin Wall and subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union, thus precipitating the ‘peace dividend’ downsizing of the global USAF aircraft order of battle.
With the diminished Soviet threat, the utility of the Aggressor program was also impacted, leading to the disbanding of all Aggressor units. Despite the impending inactivation, the final Aggressor deployment prior to disbandment was to Eglin in 1990 to work up the 33rd fighter squadron (33 FS) which was deploying to Saudi Arabia for Operation DESERT SHIELD, thus reinforcing the key role of the program: preparing warriors for combat.
The Aggressor program was not completely erased in 1990; there was still a need for adversary support to Nellis activities. The Aggressor F-5s became part of the 414th Squadron as part of the Adversary Tactics Division. The F-5s were soon replaced by F-16s – the first use of 4th generation fighters which could replicate emerging higher performance air threats such as the Russian MiG-29 Fulcrum and Su-27 Flanker. But with the reduced numbers of assets available there was a need for combat air units to supply airframes to make up Red Air numbers, impacting on the overall operational training benefits for deployed units.
During the early 2000s, the geopolitical environment had begun to change once again. Despite the focus and pull of resources for the Global War on Terror, the rise of China and resurgence of Russia under Vladimir Putin had increased the demand signal for adversary air training.
Thus, the USAF made the decision to reactivate the 64th Aggressor Squadron and the 65th Aggressor Squadron in 2005, and the 18th Aggressor Squadron in Alaska in 2007, under the Adversary Tactics Group. The 64th and 18th utilised F-16 Block 25/32 aircraft and the 65th Aggressors operated F-15C/D Eagles. The use of Eagles was noteworthy, providing the Aggressors with a large radar with the power and range to replicate modern threat fighters at tactically relevant ranges.
The resurgence of the Aggressor capability was not just in the air, but on the ground as well. The 507th Combat Training Squadron was stood up in 2003 and was redesignated the 507th Air Defense Aggressor Squadron in 2006. The 507th are the experts on adversary air defence systems and play a vital role on the NTTR by coordinating the manned and unmanned threat emitter sites. The ability for the Nellis range to run a simulated Integrated Air Defense System (IADS) provides a realistic threat environment to RED FLAG participants, the Weapons School, and the operational test community.
The key benefits of the Air Defence Aggressors also lie in their ability to dynamically interact with Suppression/Destruction of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD/DEAD) aircraft in real-time, allowing SEAD/DEAD platforms to ‘rollback’ the IADS to permit sweep assets to sanitise the air threats and allow strikers to get to their ground targets. Additionally, the ability for aircrew to go back and receive accurate missile flyout data during engagements allows them to validate their counter-threat tactics against those systems.
The multi-domain role of the Aggressors also expanded with the reactivation of two old Aggressor squadrons as reserve Space Aggressor squadrons. These units provide the ground-based jamming against space systems such as GPS. Again it is common now to see one of these reserve units at a RED FLAG contributing to the contested and degraded environment, with careful coordination with civilian air agencies to ensure civilian services are not impacted.
The 57th Information Aggressor Squadron stood up in 2007, working primarily in the cyber domain to conduct operations against insecure command and control networks. They also exploit weaknesses in physical and operational security to achieve desired training effects, gleaning Blue Force operational data to support the Aggressor mission. For example, the Information Aggressors could acquire data indicating flight data and target information, thereby providing the Aggressors with knowledge of targets and time on target – thus posturing their forces appropriately with some lessons to be highlighted during the debrief.
During 2012, following a tough year of sequestration and budget cuts, it was announced again that the Aggressor units would be downsizing. The 65th Aggressor Squadron was to be inactivated, with the remaining F-15s to be distributed across the Air National Guard units.
During this time, the emergence of contracted Adversary Air (ADAIR) support sought to plug the gap in Aggressor numbers. Draken International and Airborne Tactical Advantage Company (ATAC) became more visible at Nellis, the latter already conducting long-term support for the US Navy from NAS Ventura County at Point Mugu.
Draken and ATAC started with earlier generation fighter aircraft like Aero L-39s and Hawker Hunters, but over time have slowly built up their fleets with later high-performance 3rd generation aircraft such as Saab Drakens, New Zealand’s former A-4K Skyhawk and MB339 Macchi fleets, former Israeli IAI Kfirs re-designated as F-21s and, most recently, a number of former French and Spanish Air Force Dassault Mirage F1s.
Most recently, Top Aces – which had primarily supported the Royal Canadian Air Force – received four ex-Israeli Lockheed F-16A/Bs, becoming the first private company to operate 4th generation fighters for adversary support. Top Aces also supported the RAAF’s Air Warfare Instructor Course (AWIC) in 2017 with three Dornier Alpha Jets.
Air USA is seeking to purchase at least 36 of Australia’s fleet of F/A-18 classic Hornets, but the status of that sale remains unknown. If it occurs, it would be the biggest transfer of 4th generation fighters to a private company thus far.
The growth in industry ADAIR support has continued apace, with the USAF seeking industry participants in a long-term, multi-billion dollar air support contract for several USAF training airbases. So far, ATAC, Draken, and Tactical Air Support (TacAir) have been awarded individual contracts, with more to follow. These contracts reflect the need for the USAF to replace legacy platforms such as the F-5A/E and T-38 that, in the past have provided the threat presentations for training, and to augment USAF Aggressor numbers.
Interestingly, the USAF has realised that it requires low-observable 5th generation adversary support to replicate the advanced Russian and Chinese fighters that have become operational, and so it was announced in 2020 that the 65th Aggressor Squadron would be reactivated as an F-35 adversary squadron.
Although reportedly utilising early-build Block 2 F-35A airframes that are considered uneconomical to be refurbished to the current Tech Refresh 2 (TR2) standard, the F-35A Aggressors will still provide a significant threat challenge to support high end operational test, weapons school missions, and exclusive RED FLAG exercises.
So, what can the RAAF learn from the USAF Aggressor programs?
Firstly, from the USAF experience, the use of dedicated adversary air assets frees up your operational fleet to concentrate on large force employment exercises and training. The withdrawal of the sizeable classic Hornet fleet will leave a large hole in adversary support in Australia, with just two squadrons of Super Hornets while the F-35 squadrons ramp up.
There are several considerations, especially which platform(s) will be allocated as the training aid, and what flying hours will need to be allocated to achieve the desired training outcomes. Perhaps industry can achieve the Adversary air requirements with a modern 4th generation fighter to replicate many of the threat platforms still widely utilised. This would free up hours on the RAAF’s 4.5 and 5th generation fleets to focus on force generation.
Secondly, the need for a fully-instrumented range with capable ground-based air defence (GBAD) emitters to provide a simulated IADS should be considered a vital resource for training and force preparedness. The RAAF has relied on RED FLAG activities to operate in a dense threat environment to ensure all RAAF capabilities receive valuable training outcomes, but COVID-19 has demonstrated the limitations in the reliance on overseas training requirements. With appropriate networks and instrumentation in our own vast ranges, the fidelity of playback and modelling is enhanced, ensuring focus on debriefing the mission and drawing out those key focus areas for improvement.
Finally, the need to provide our operational units an adversary with multi-domain integration will become more prominent as the ADF seeks to operate in a contested high-end threat environment. The RAAF should explore the generation of Aggressor units across the air, air defence, space, and cyber domain. The air and air defence units could be through industry provision, and the space and cyber teams could be drawn from existing Air Force space and cyber units.
Do we need to resource and replicate to the scale of the USAF Aggressors? Not necessarily, but progress to a more integrated suite of adversary capabilities in the RAAF would be a major leap towards a 5th generation training system.
This article appeared in the Jan-Feb 2021 issue of ADBR.