It is notable that, not so long ago, it seemed that the growing demand for red air might be satisfied by older jets that could be upgraded to replicate fourth-generation platforms for this kind of work. When Draken acquired its Cheetahs, for example, much was made about how they could successfully emulate fourth-generation platforms. Similarly, in 2018 the U.S. Navy decided that upgraded F-5s were perfectly suitable for this work, passing on an F-16-based proposal.
In the meantime, it seems there has been something of a change, or at least a realization that true fourth-generation jets are the best option for high-end aggressor work. This could be as a result of China’s growing capabilities and to a lesser extent those of Russia, or perhaps just a reflection that more second-hand F-16s are now becoming available. There is also the factor of a lack of corporate knowledge as regards types like the Cheetah and Mirage, with few U.S. pilots and maintainers having experience of them. The case of the F-16 is very different indeed. Meanwhile, the Air Force has, more generally, been pursuing a crawl, walk, run approach to its dealings with contractor-supplied adversary firms, as Lieutenant Colonel Jan ‘Kuts’ Stahl explained to The War Zone in a wide-ranging interview:
“The fielding of contract aggressor forces was always intended to be a multi-year process in which initially we put jets on the line to fill more of the demand for quantity as opposed to the demand for quality. We then put measures in place that over a period of multiple years to stimulate the contract adversary industry to put some of these specific requirements and demands that we need in order to meet that quality benchmark, as well.”
What is less clear, though, is whether the Air Force and Navy will be happy to pay the additional costs involved in operating high-end aggressors of this type. Until now, contractors have managed to provide financially attractive red air offers, leveraging the lower costs of operating less sophisticated types, like the A-4. The F-16s will likely cost substantially more to operate than even the third-generation jets, however.
As yet, we don’t know what kinds of upgrades will be undertaken for the Draken F-16A/Bs, although it’s likely they will follow a path similar to that taken by Top Aces for its ex-Israeli jets. This is based around an open mission system architecture with a new mission computer, AESA radar, helmet-mounted sight, and Link 16.
In the background to all this, of course, is the U.S. Air Force’s huge $6.4-billion contract opportunity for red air and close air support training at 12 different airbases throughout the United States. Draken is one of the companies to have received a share of an indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity (IDIQ) contract, alongside Air USA, Airborne Tactical Advantage Company, Tactical Air Support, and Top Aces. The contract runs until October 2024 and is likely to involve between 40,000 to 50,000 flying hours per year.
Beyond these requirements, there will be additional Air Force demand for contractor red air at other stateside bases, too, as well as in support of the U.S. military and its allies in Europe and the Pacific. The U.S. Navy has its own contractor adversary contract, as well, with ATAC and TacAir currently supporting this, but with further opportunities to follow in the future.
Although already at a NATO standard, the process of certifying the former Dutch F-16s for contractor aggressor work, and then upgrading them accordingly, won’t necessarily be a quick one. But with deliveries of the jets due to begin next year, we might not have to wait too long until a second contractor begins flying F-16 aggressor jets in the United States.
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