Key point: Washington is aware that Beijing and Moscow have their own sophisticated stealth fighters. In order to prepare to fight them, the Pentagon will use early versions of the F-35 to simulate enemy aircraft.

The U.S. Air Force plans to re-establish a defunct squadron that as recently as 2014 flew F-15s to simulate the enemy force in realistic war games.

The 65th Aggressor Squadron in its new form would operate early-model F-35A stealth fighters, allowing the Air Force to copy the tactics of Russian and Chinese squadrons respectively flying Su-57 and J-20 stealth fighters.

The stealth aggressor squadron will fly from Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, where the Air Force hosts its annual Red Flag exercise. It’s unclear when the unit will restart operations. The 65th Aggressor Squadron five years shut down as a cost-saving measure.

The War Zone reporter Tyler Rogoway on May 9, 2019 broke the news of the unit’s revival. “Nellis Air Force Base looks forward to reactivating the 65th Aggressor Squadron with the F-35A,” Rogoway quoted Nellis spokesperson Maj. Chris Sukach as saying. “This added capability will enhance the already robust adversary replication provided to U.S. and partner-nation air forces through multiple training and exercise scenarios.”

“The F-35’s ability to play the bad guy will surpass that of any aircraft ever tasked with the mission before,” Rogoway wrote.

The aircraft is uniquely suited to replicate a wide range of threats with unprecedented high fidelity. I have talked with sources about this in the past and they have noted that the F-35’s software alone should be able to be manipulated to replicate the sensor, sensor fusion, electronic warfare and communications capabilities of adversary threats.

In other words, applications could be designed to limit various aspects of the F-35’s capabilities—and enhance others synthetically via data-link—to better mirror that of the aircraft it is masquerading as. In addition, it can be equipped with bolt-on radar reflectors that may be able to be manipulated to better replicate certain radar signatures of enemy aircraft, including those that aren’t even stealthy at all.

Once the 65th Aggressor Squadron stands up, the Air Force will have three dedicated “red air” units. The 64th Aggressor Squadron flies F-16s from Nellis. The 18th Aggressor Squadron and its F-16s are based in Alaska.

The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps have their own adversary squadrons flying F-16s, F/A-18s and F-5s. The Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps also contract with civilian companies that provide red-air services.

The Air Force isn’t waiting for the 65th Aggressor Squadron to form before it sends F-35s to portray enemy planes. For two weeks starting in late April 2019, F-35s from the active-duty 388th Fighter Wing and reserve 419th Fighter Wing played the part of enemy fighters in a wide-ranging war game at Hill that also involved Air Force pilot trainees flying F-16s as well as adversary planes from private firm Draken International.

The F-35s alongside F-16s and Draken’s own planes played the part of the enemy force. “We flew 100 F-35A missions with 22 aircraft, integrated on 56 F-16 missions and defended vulnerable assets for a 16-hour window,” the 388th Fighter Wing stated on social media.

The “blue force” F-16s outnumbered the “red force” F-35s, F-16s and adversaries. “We were severely outnumbered,” said Maj. Thomas Meyer, a weapons officer with the 388th Fighter Wing. “We had a five-to-one aggressor ratio and we were tasked with defending a list of assets over an eight-hour tour time block. We had aircraft sitting in alert status to respond to whatever enemy threats were presented.”

“These guys are getting really good at flying the F-35 and they can present some aggressive situations that force young pilots into errors,” said Maj. Benjamin Walters, an F-16 instructor pilot. “It’s not always the guy who should win that does win. At some point it’s pilots in cockpits that win fights.”

With the 65th Aggressor Squadron playing bad guy year-round, more Air Force pilots soon could have the chance to tangle with an experienced fellow U.S. pilot flying a stealth fighter. That could help them prepare to battle Russia and China’s own stealthy warplanes.

David Axe serves as Defense Editor of the National Interest. He is the author of the graphic novels  War FixWar Is Boring and Machete Squad. This first appeared in 2019.

Image: Reuters. 

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