The Private Air Force Preparing U.S. Pilots for the Next War
For years, the U.S. military secretly flew Russian aircraft. Now it needs a cheaper option.
When Lt. Col. Eric “Doc” Schultz died in a crash during a training flight in early September at a Nevada test range, it took three days for the U.S. Air Force to acknowledge the accident. Even then, the Air Force refused to say what kind of jet Schultz was flying when he was killed.
The hushed reaction spawned theories that the Air Force didn’t want to expose a new, classified aircraft. Another theory was the military was covering up the crash of an F-35 stealth fighter, which the service eventually denied. Some of the speculation was put to rest when reports emerged that Schultz was part of Air Force squadron tasked with evaluating foreign aircraft and was likely flying a Russian Su-27 used to train pilots on how to fight some of the newest aircraft coming from Russia and China.
Over the years, plane spotters have snapped pictures of at least one Russian Su-27 fighter jet flying over Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, where American pilots schooled in Russian tactics go head to head with other American pilots. Yet the Air Force’s operation of Russian aircraft now is modest compared with during the Cold War.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the U.S. Air Force operated a secret squadron, nicknamed the Red Eagles, that flew Soviet aircraft to train American pilots to fight against potential adversaries. That squadron was disbanded in 1990, however, and its remaining aircraft transferred to a smaller test squadron, which Schultz was a part of.
While the Red Eagles were disbanded, the need to operate foreign aircraft as part of an aggressor squadron never went away. And with recent advances in Russian capabilities, and a more aggressive posture after the Kremlin’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine, the need is greater today than at any point since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
As a result, last year the Air Force’s Air Combat Command announced that it would explore using a fleet of contractor-owned and operated aircraft to fly what is officially known as “adversary air.”
This week, the Air Force released its formal “presolicitation,” essentially an announcement to the industry that it is moving forward with a formal competition. The lucrative contract, potentially worth billions of dollars, has already sent companies scrambling to buy up foreign aircraft. It also signals a fundamental break from the past: What was once a fundamental part of the U.S. Air Force will now go to private contractors.
Speaking last month at an annual Air Force summit, Gen. James Holmes, the head of Air Combat Command, pointed to an escalating pilot shortage as one of the major factors leading to the decision to outsource adversary air. Taking pilots out of combat rotations isn’t an option given the pace of military operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, increased combat in Afghanistan, and growing tensions with Iran and North Korea. “I’d have to trade an operational fighter squadron for an aggressor squadron,” which would take about 20 to 24 aircraft and their pilots out of circulation, Holmes said.
The Air Force’s aggressor squadron is a classic Cold War story. The U.S. Defense Department, in a program named Constant Peg, quietly sought to obtain Soviet aircraft on the sly. The Red Eagles, the product of this program, flew a variety of aircraft including MiG-17s, MiG-21s, and MiG-23s. Even after the unit was disbanded, however, the Air Force continued to obtain and operate Soviet aircraft for testing.
According to several sources, the Air Force now has a number of MiG-29s that were obtained via Moldova and two Su-27s, one of which is believed to have been destroyed in the crash that killed Schultz.
Getting Russian aircraft has become easier since the fall of the Soviet Union, according to those familiar with the Air Force program, but keeping those aircraft flying proved difficult; they required spare parts that were difficult to get. “A lot of that was political,” said a former government official who worked with Soviet aircraft. “To get spare parts, you had to deal with the Russians and their purchasing agents, and you had to deal with their companies.”
The question now, however, is why the Air Force is turning to non-Russian aircraft to mimic a Russian threat. “My guess is it’s political considerations that may be driving the quest for non-Soviet aircraft,” said one owner of a private firm that deals in Russian aircraft. The Air Force would prefer to have something “maintained and operated by a big company.”
But the cost of aircraft is just one factor driving the new contract. The other is the availability of military pilots. The pool of U.S. Air Force pilots that can be spared to fly training missions is vanishingly small. The Air Force is currently struggling to cope with a shortage of 1,500 pilots, forcing leadership to shutter many of the dedicated training squadrons that kept Cold War-era fliers sharp, leaving a new generation of fighter pilots with diminishing opportunities to fly against modern aircraft.
After looking at options to keep as many fighter pilots flying as possible, using contractors “turned out to be the quickest to field and most cost-effective” way to keep people flying, said Stephen Brannen, the adversary air program manager at Air Combat Command. He estimates that the contract will be worth as much as $500 million a year. But primarily, “it was borne out of the combat fighter pilot shortage,” he said.
The potential reward of billions of dollars has two companies in particular scrambling to buy foreign aircraft in a bid to win the contract, and several other companies are rumored to be in the mix. Only it’s not Russian aircraft they’re snapping up. The Virginia-based Airborne Tactical Advantage Company, or ATAC, has bought 63 modernized French Mirage fighters, and Draken International has purchased 20 Mirages being retired by Spain.
Turning to private industry and older aircraft to mimic new Russian and Chinese fifth-generation fighters is a bold, and possibly risky, step that the Air Force says is necessary, given the massive shortfall in available pilots and budget constraints partially imposed by massive buys of F-35 aircraft and a new stealth bomber currently in development.
The service is looking to contract out about 37,000 hours of the 60,000 training hours it flies each year, leading some Air Force leaders to estimate that about 150 to 200 contractor aircraft will be needed. No one contractor could even come close to filling that need, meaning the bid will be split among multiple companies, of which ATAC and Draken are the largest.
Draken, which has somewhere around 80 aircraft, already has a deal to fly missions at Nellis Air Force Base. The industry’s biggest contractor, ATAC — with about 90 jets — flies with Navy aircraft carrier strike groups before they head out on lengthy deployments.
But private contractors’ planes don’t come close to matching the capabilities of modern Chinese and Russian planes, much less the U.S. aggressor squadrons flying F-16s and F-15s. Until now, contractors have been able to fly second- and third-generation aircraft, but both services are demanding fourth-generation aircraft to give their pilots a taste of what they might face. The Mirages aren’t to that level, but the hope is that with some upgrades to their avionics, they can mimic fourth-generation aircraft well enough.
Jeffrey Parker, the CEO of ATAC, told Foreign Policy that his company snapped up “basically the entire French air force” supply of Mirages — along with 6 million spare parts — and is paying to upgrade them because it saw both potential Air Force and Navy contracts coming, and he sees there being demand around the globe for these kinds of contractor-led air training programs.
Parker and others noted that the Navy hurriedly issued a solicitation for fourth-generation trainers as soon as word leaked about the upcoming Air Force bid. With the services competing for a limited number of fourth-generation aircraft, the French and Spanish jets bought by ATAC and Draken were part of a dwindling supply.
Even so, industry watchers expect it to be several years before the industry can meet the Air Force’s needs, forcing the service to continue to make trade-offs. “Demand is appearing to outstrip supply,” Parker said, “and the aftermarket for used military fighters has grown tremendously” as the rising cost of new advanced aircraft slips further out of the reach of smaller countries.
Even beyond the cost, questions remain over how well these older jets and contract pilots can mimic advanced aircraft and if they can effectively replace highly trained Air Force aggressor squadrons that have flown missions for decades. “You have to train like you fight,” said retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Lawrence Stutzriem, a former fighter pilot.
What is being lost is felt acutely by Stutzriem, who spent years flying against fellow Air Force pilots who had perfected Russian tactics during the height of the Cold War. In those years, “the best pilots got assigned to aggressor squadrons,” he said, where they focused on studying Russian doctrine and tactics, and the service made sure that “they’re better pilots than you.”
Holmes, the head of Air Combat Command, said seeking private contractors isn’t the desired option but that it’s the only one the Air Force can afford right now given shortages in budgets and personnel. “It’s a temporary measure the way we see it,” he said. “We would like to get it back in house.”
The trade-offs are real, he said. American pilots have always trained against a peer threat, but with contractors flying older jets, “we know it’s going to be something less than that.”
But as of now, there’s not enough money and too few pilots to even place a timeline on that plan. And at least for the foreseeable future, a mission that was once a core Air Force capability will be filled by contractors flying private aircraft.
“It’s years away before we can start doing it ourselves again,” Holmes said.
* Sharon Weinberger contributed reporting to this article.