With U.S. military services looking to alleviate shortages of pilots and publicly admitting shortages in readiness, the Navy, Marines, and Air Force have begun to contract out some kinds of pilot training—specifically the live simulation of enemy aircraft. This trend, coupled with the worldwide rise in available military jets as air forces modernize, has led to the emergence of a new private industry offering adversary air combat training.
What is adversary air combat training?
Before the Vietnam War, American air forces trained internally, with pilots flying against others in similar aircraft using the same tactics. During that war, however, the United States learned a great deal about modern adversary tactics and the capabilities of the (mainly Soviet) aircraft employed in that war, which often differed markedly from what had been experienced in pre war training. To spread those lessons and train pilots more realistically, the U.S. Air Force and Navy began formal programs of Dissimilar Air Combat Training, or DACT.
DACT pilots were trained in adversary tactics of the time, and flew U.S. aircraft that most resembled expected adversaries in performance, painted in foreign camouflage to provide a more realistic image. Under then-classified programs, the Air Force also acquired actual foreign aircraft to better determine their characteristics. The Air Force established Aggressor squadrons that participated in large exercises and toured fighter bases to provide realistic opposition during training rotations. The Navy created adversary forces that flew as opposition to pilots going through the TOPGUN senior fighter school. Those programs continue to the present day.
How are private firms involved?
As global air forces modernized over the past two decades, the wide availability of surplus third- and fourth-generation fighter aircraft and high-performance jet trainers led to the establishment of private companies providing “adversary air” on a contract basis. Firms such as Draken International, TopACES, Discovery Air, Tactical Air Support, and ATAC initially provided services to foreign air forces whose smaller fleets did not permit establishing their own dedicated adversary forces.
The U.S. Navy and Air Force experimented with contract adversary air in the mid-2010s and have subsequently entered into major contracts. From the military perspective, these services offer U.S. pilots the opportunity to fly against a diversity of aircraft types without the overhead and expense required to maintain a fleet of planes not otherwise in inventory. Particularly in the case of the Air Force, which has increasingly publicized a shortage of pilots, using contractors to provide adversary air may free up experienced uniformed pilots for other duties.
This report has been removed from the website of the Congressional Research Service, but is available on that of the Federation of American Scientists. Click here for the full report (3 PDF pages).