Having formed until now an anecdotal contribution in the training of European Tier-1 air forces, the contribution of ‘Red Air’ service providers could evolve in the years to come, in line with what has happened in North America for years.
PARIS --- There is a long list of attempted or successful acquisitions of second-hand fighters by private operators over the past few months, whether they are Mirage 2000s, F-16s, F/A-18s... Including a number of rumors with a varying degree of accuracy from various countries, including but not limited to Australia, Morocco, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Greece, Brazil, Peru, the United Kingdom, and Singapore.
Rumors, but also a few real contracts that reinforce and modernize the fleets of adversary air services providers. This is notably the case with US-based Draken International, which has acquired - or is in the process of acquiring – two batches of 12 F-16s from the Norwegian Air Force and the Netherlands Air Force.
In the absence of sufficient training capacity within the regular forces, given the reduction of their fleets, the increase of operational demands as higher unit costs reduce the number of aircraft acquired, and the challenges of operational availability for new complex aircraft, even the most advanced air forces will end up outsourcing part of their training to play the opponents, a.k.a the ‘Reds’ or the ‘aggressors’.
Capable of simulating air-to-air/air-to-surface threats, participating in various exercises, or towing targets, such private service providers should play a more important role than the one they currently play, by providing more flight hours with more modern aircraft, than those previously used. The aim is to simulate more complex threats, representative of symmetrical opponents during in-flight practice sessions that are meant to help the Air Forces to improve their performance against a growing number of high-performance aircraft, especially China and Russia’s most advanced platforms. All this at a sustainable cost to the public finances.
The US-based first-tier players
The North-American providers are clearly the leaders for such Adversary Air Training Contracts or Close Air Support Training Contracts, with an internal market for the U.S. armed forces allowing them to reach a critical size.
DoD awarded no less than $8.4bn worth of contracts between 2015 and 2020 to such private players, according to a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO)’s report titled: "Military Air Support - DoD Has Increased Its Use of Contracts to Meet Training Requirements".
Contracts awarded by the USAF alone were worth $83mn in 2015 but increased up to $6.4bn in 2020, an exceptional year with a multiyear multiple Combat Air Forces/Contracted Air Support contract awarded to seven contractors for the next five years. The US Air Force wants third-party contractors to fly 30,000 adversary air sorties annually in the continental United States, Alaska and Hawaii, and this is a way to consolidate several past awards under a single contract. The US Navy made a similar move in 2019 with 4 contractors for CAS services. Those amounts represent more or less $1bn per year to share (from 30.000 flying hours in 2015 to more than 75.000 hours in 2020).
This flow of contracts has contributed to the emergence of a handful of leading providers such as Airborne Tactical Advantage Company (ATAC), Top Aces, Draken International, Air USA… These players now have real medium-term visibility and a real investment capacity to modernize their offer. In the same time, according to Military.com, the USAF announced that it is reactivating a new Aggressor Squadron and moving 11 F-35A Lightning IIs to Nellis Air Force Base to serve as aggressor air training, as it makes solid economic sense to not to upgrade them to the latest standard, but to use them as aggressors.
A nascent market in Europe
For its part, due to similar constraints on a slightly lower-smaller scale, the European market could also finally take off, after years of announcements that never truly materialized. Air forces that were once reluctant to use such providers could do so.
As the Chief of Staff of the French Air and Space Force - Gen. Stéphane Mille - recently told the national daily Le Monde, his challenge is to keep a sufficient number of front-line fighter aircraft available to carry out all the required missions: “The export of French Air Force combat aircraft to close partners is basically good news, for obvious reasons of interoperability. As for the sale of used aircraft, if I temporarily have fewer aircraft, I must generate the same volume of activities with a smaller fleet. This implies an effort in terms of maintenance.
“We are also looking at all the ways in which we can reduce margins, without jeopardizing our operational capacity. This can be done by outsourcing "Red Air" functions. It can be by increasing the use of simulator training, even though a lot is already being done and simulation is not a complete replacement”.
This is a significant change, as the French Air Force has decided to keep a substantial fleet of Alpha Jets (more than 50), due to the lack of a replacement solution and the lack of alternatives for the ‘aggressor’ role. This effort will probably be continued while, at the same time, the training requirements of the Future Combat Air Systems (FCAS) will require a change of scale.
UK procurement officials want to bring the $136.5 million Medium-to-Fast Speed Operational Readiness Training aerial support service into operation as early as July (for an estimated 2,400 flying hours per year), after the defense ministry announced it would accelerate the retirement of the BAE Systems Hawk T1 jet trainer aircraft operated by the RAF.
While Germany has taken the lead by recently renewing - at the beginning of 2021 - a six-year contract with Top Aces for around 10,000 flying hours with A-4N Skyhawk, following a f first contract signed in 2017. For its part, the European Defence Agency (EDA), which is trying to pool certain requirements, has estimated the European potential at around 22,000 flight hours over 5 years, representing a potential turnover of around €300mn.
The EDA hopes to launch a call for tenders for 3,000 to 10,000 flight hours soon (after a Request for Information launched in February last year).
Strong activism for acquisitions
In such a context, the existing “Red Air” service providers are in their starting blocks. Draken International bought Cobham Aviation Services in September 2020, giving birth to Draken Europe, to develop activities on this side of the Atlantic.
In parallel with the modernization of the armed forces' fleet and the retirement of older aircraft, negotiations are active for every fleet that they can easily squeeze out a decade of remaining service of intensive use.
Draken is shopping around Europe, looking for the best deals on F-16 that are progressively being replaced by F-35s, to complete a fleet including aircraft from different generations: Aero Vodochody L-39 and L-159E, A-4 Skyhawk, Mirage F-1M…
Pending formal approval by the US and local governments, the F-16s will be the company’s first fourth-generation fighters, which will likely be upgraded with the latest electronic equipment (such as modern AESA radars and modular avionics) to provide a realistic level of adversary training. Their “re-entry” into service expected in 2022.
Another company, Top Aces, bought 29 ex-Israeli F-16s, in a deal valued at around $100mn. These companies are also looking at Australia for the remaining Super Hornet not sold to Canada.
They are also looking at countries that are replacing their older aircraft with new F-35s such as Denmark, Belgium and Finland. The UK’s recently revealed plan to prematurely retire its Tranche 1 Eurofighter Typhoon combat aircraft will see the fleet axed with over half of its airframe fatigue life remaining.
With deliveries of F-35 or Rafale advancing around the world, the availability of used F-16s or Mirage 2000s will be even greater in the coming years, from Taiwan, UAE or Greece. On a global scale, such change leads to the acquisition of more modern aircraft, from used Mirage F-1, F-5 Tiger, Alphajet (as the remaining 25 Belgian ones were sold to Top Aces in 2020), to new ones. This has implications in terms of flying hour costs and human resources available to maintain them and keep them in flying conditions.
For their part, French players are not being left behind. In particular Ares (formed with the recent merging of Secaero, a Secamic subsidiary, with the company SDTS) with a contract for second-hand Mirage 2000-5 from the Qatari Air Force. Another change of scale as the company trains the French Navy with a fleet of 9 aged Aermacchi MB339. The newly acquired aircraft are expected to be available this year.
Another company, Procor, says it has bought 9 Mirage 2000C and 2 Mirage 2000B from Brazil to enter the market for both air combat and JTAC training, involving ground-to-air units. They are only waiting for actual contracts.
To an improvement of the range of services
In the short term, it will be necessary to improve the range of services, by not just pitting one ‘Blue’ aircraft against another, but rather one or more aircraft against a wave of ‘Red’ ones. Other training requirements may eventually emerge: aerial UAVs in the longer term, new capabilities with various payloads, simulated A2/AD bubbles (including decoys, simulation of anti-aircraft batteries, “double digit SAMs”, etc.), integration of ‘Red’ C2 systems, integration of ‘Red’ devices into the combat cloud to allow debriefing or to simulate an enemy in both real and virtual mode, compatibility with ground-based training systems, etc.
One of the key issues is the upgradability of such aircraft: radios, avionics, pods, electronic warfare pods, internal suites, training pods, captive air-to-air missiles, chaff and flares, and other payloads… As with Top Aces’ aircraft equipped with the proprietary Advanced Aggressor Mission System (AAMS), a sophisticated technology to replicate the most advanced capabilities of contemporary air-to-air combat opponents. Meanwhile, control and dominance of the electromagnetic spectrum is a major part of today’s warfare which, if neglected, can compromise mission success. Red Air fleets will have to adapt to this scope of tactics and procedures.
It is also not impossible that fleet of first-hand aircraft could be offered, by existing providers or by new ones, with a current new generation of training aircraft available, such as LIFTs (lead-in fighter trainers), sometimes supersonic, highly maneuverable and optimized for realistic training. They can also carry a large and diverse payload.
This would involve L-39NG, M-346, Advanced Hawk and Boeing T-7A… Or the new jet trainer / aggressor aircraft recently pitched by Airbus under the AFJT acronym (Future Jet Trainer). It is also possible to mention the Aeralis Advanced Jet Trainer
These capabilities will be obviously offered by providers who already have a certain level of maturity and solid financial resources. As a result of such a level of ambition and complexity, it is quite likely that new alliances between aircraft manufacturers and services providers will emerge: Dassault Aviation, Airbus, BAE Systems, Leonardo, Pilatus, Babcock International, DCI, Thales, Jet Aviation…
The big (Red) air maneuvers may in fact have just begun!