Image 1: 65th Aggressor Squadron F-15C with "splinter" camouflage scheme at Nellis AFB. Aggressor aircraft often use the camouflage patters found on Russian aircraft for added realism. Image Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. William P.Coleman/Released
Too often aviation enthusiasts debate on the technical statistics of certain sensors and weapons or how a certain aspect of an aircraft's airframe makes it more maneuverable than another. In reality, a fighter aircraft is only as deadly as its pilot. In real world conflicts outside of internet forums, pilots are often the deciding factor in a dogfight. This historical trend is evident in many of the Israeli-Arab conflicts (e.g. The Six Day War) and Desert Storm. The magnitude in which both the Israeli and American forces dominated their opponents is not proportional to the disparity in aircraft performance between the opposing forces. Since the 1970s, the United States is has maintained the best set of training programs for preparing pilots for war. A key component in the U.S training exercises is the use of Aggressor pilots. This article will explain the important role aggressor training and how aggressor training will be important long into the future.
After the Vietnam War, the United States Air Force went through a through examination of its own shortcomings. An extensive series of analysis pointed to a series of factors that contributed towards the poor 2:1 exchange ratios experienced in Vietnam (Source 10). The reports concluded that most pilot casualties occurred within their first ten combat missions. If a pilot survived their first ten combat missions, their chances of surviving subsequent combat missions increased significantly (Source 1). Red Flag was designed to provide U.S pilots with their first ten "combat" missions. Blue force (trainee pilots) fly against specialized aggressor pilots (red force).
Image 2: US pilot from the 64th Aggressor Squadron flying a modified F-16. (Image Credit: image courtesy of source 3)
Aggressor pilots are chosen for their formidable skills. Aggressor pilots flying for the 64th and 65th Squadron are some of the best in the entire United States Air Force (Majumdar, 2009). Each aggressor pilot specialize in flying their aircraft in a manner similar to potential adversaries. For example, some pilots from the 65th Aggressor Squadron fly F-15C's to mimic the Su-30. Aggressor pilots will specialize in replicating the chosen single enemy aircraft and will study the aircraft in detail for an entire year. This process involves consulting various intelligence agencies (e.g. National Security Agency) about enemy tactics and the aircraft handling's characteristics. Aggressor pilots have even been known to play the Soviet National Anthem before an exercise to get in the mood (USAF, 2008).
"It is vitally important to replicate the enemy threat with more than just painting our jets with old Soviet flanker themes...We do our best to replicate every aspect of the exercise, including missiles, information operations and ground operations...We even fly the way they fly" - Captian Hale, 18th Aggressor Squadron
Image 3: 18th Aggressor Squadron decorations at Eielson Air Force Base Alaska. The motto reads: "Have at You!" or Russian (pronounced dai u tebya). Other decorations include Soviet Flags and propaganda "Glory to the Soviet People--The Creator of Powerful Aviation".
Aggressor aircraft are easily distinguishable from their peers due to the use of old Soviet style camouflage patterns. To further heighten the realism, aggressor aircraft are modified both visually and internally to simulate the chosen enemy aircraft. (Russian, Chinese, North Korean, Iranian and Syrian are the predominate practice opponents)
"Snider’s modified and camouflaged F-15 is fitted with special radars, weapons control systems, and other characteristics of the Russian Su-30 fighter aircraft, drawn from evaluations by US intelligence agencies and firsthand reports from allies. He works closely with the National Security Agency, the CIA, and other spy units before concluding, as he put it: 'We think this is kind of how the Su-30 would perform.'" - Bryan Bender, 2013
The effort to duplicate enemy tactics and capabilities has been greatly enhanced through acquisition of real adversary aircraft. Through undisclosed means the United States has acquired many Soviet aircraft over the years including the Su-27 and Mig 29 (Bill Sweetman, 2012). Invaluable lessons were gleamed through careful examination of adversary aircraft. For example:
"'The CIA gave us a flare dispenser from a Frogfoot [Su-25] that had been shot down in Afghanistan. We gave it to maintenance – it was just a thing with wires coming out of it. Four hours later they had it operational on a MiG-21...In 1987 we had the AIM-9P, which was designed to reject flares, and when we used US flares against it would ignore them and go straight for the target. We had the Soviet flares – they were dirty, and none of them looked the same – and the AIM-9P said 'I love that flare'"
The effect Red Flag has had on the USAF is undeniable. The improved dogfighting skills of USAF pilots played an important role in Desert Storm. The F-15C scored 32 aerial victories in Desert Storm with no losses (Source 7). Although only eight kills were achieved at visual range, the lack of any casualties is a testament to the quality of training provided at Nellis. After the Gulf War, a pilot said "it was almost as intense as Red Flag".
Part II will discuss the current state of Red Flag and the important role it will serve into the future.
PART II LINK HERE
Image 4: Aggressor F-16 at Nellis. (Image Credit: Source 3)