The First Contractor-Operated F-16 Aggressor Jets Are Heading To North America

Canada’s Top Aces will challenge U.S. fighter pilots using a fleet of ex-Israeli F-16 fighter jets based in Arizona.  

Israeli Air Force F-16A Netz
AP/Ariel Schalit

The first F-16 jet fighters to be flown by a private contractor offering red air adversary support are on their way to North America. It was confirmed today that a batch of the former Israeli Air Force jets was being transported from Israel to North America aboard a Ukrainian-registered An-124 cargo aircraft. Photos show at least three F-16s, with wings and tail surfaces removed, waiting to be loaded on the aircraft, with unconfirmed reports suggesting that four F-16s are being delivered. Once in North America, the fighters will join the Top Aces company, which will use them specifically to help fulfill the U.S. Air Force’s mammoth adversary air contract.

As of January last year, Top Aces was reportedly still in the process of taking delivery of up to 29 single-seat F-16As from what was then an unknown source, with Jordan being identified at the time as one of the possible candidates. 

Gui Ashash/Israeli Air Force

An F-16A Netz while still in Israeli Air Force service, at Nevatim Air Base.

Then, last November, it was reported that Top Aces had chosen former Israeli F-16A/B jets — known in Hebrew as Netz — under a deal with the Israeli Ministry of Defense said to be worth around $100 million. Exactly how many jets are involved is unclear, but the company received approval to acquire up to 29, and in November 2019 the Top Aces confirmed it was seeking to acquire 12, although this could just be the first batch. Furthermore, those dozen jets were described as Block 15s, which are not a variant acquired by Israel, although the block number may also refer to the approximate standard to which the Israeli jets were upgraded while in service. 

Top Aces has long harbored an aspiration to acquire F-16s for red air use and, once they arrive in North America, the jets will be outfitted with open-architecture avionics making it possible to install different radar, sensors, electronic warfare pods, or other technologies as required. These modifications should ensure that the long-in-the-tooth F-16s are able to test pilots flying fifth-generation fighter jets like the F-22 and F-35. In regular use, the jets will be flown by the firm’s pilots comprising former Canadian, German, and U.S. military aviators, around 80 percent of whom are said to be graduates of the TOPGUN Fighter Weapons School.

On its website, Top Aces provides the following information about the new addition to its inventory, which will join the subsonic Alpha Jet and A-4 Skyhawk aircraft already in use:

As part of its future fleet, Top Aces intends to introduce the F-16 which is considered by many to be the most agile fighter aircraft of its generation. Its superior speed, acceleration, maneuverability, small visual and radar signature, and ability to integrate advanced sensors and threat systems have made it the aircraft of choice for the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy aggressor fleets since 1988.

The Netz aircraft were originally delivered to Israel in the early 1980s and saw considerable combat action, including scoring the first air-to-air victory for the F-16, a Syrian helicopter downed with its cannon on April 28, 1981. The jets also executed the daring long-range daytime bombing raid on Saddam Hussein’s Osiris nuclear reactor near Baghdad on June 7, 1981.

The last examples of the Netz in Israeli service were finally withdrawn in 2016, a total of 40 then being put up for sale. The Israeli Air Force fleet now comprises the more advanced F-16C/D Barak as well as the F-16I Sufa that is optimized for long-range strike missions.

Mor Tzidon/Israeli Air Force

A retired F-16A Netz now preserved as an instructional airframe at Hatzerim Air Base.

The background to the significant expansion of the Top Aces aggressor fleet is the U.S. Air Force’s red air adversary support program, in which the Canadian contractor was one of seven different companies hired to help U.S. military combat jet pilots train at various bases across the United States. This massive multi-billion dollar contract announced in October 2019 is the culmination of a major effort within the service that has been years in the making to increasingly rely on contractors to provide these services in order to improve flexibility for training requirements and to save money.

The Air Combat Command contract is capped at no more than $6.4 billion, but it is unclear how much each company stands to make under their respective deals, which will cover work through 2024. 

Top Aces

Concept artwork from the company indicating how the contractor-operated F-16s might look.

Last summer, details emerged of the first five bases to receive the contract aggressor support, covering Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico and Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, although Top Aces was not among the initial round of contract awardees.

In a tweet today, the Canadian company announced that its F-16s will be based at Mesa, Arizona, home to its F-16 Center of Excellence. Not only is this close to the company’s U.S. headquarters, but offers a useful central location, good weather, and access to local aerospace industry expertise.  

“The F-16 really is our growth platform for the future, especially for advanced adversary training,” Paul Bouchard, president and chief executive officer of Top Aces told Skies magazine in a November 2019 interview. “It is the most prolific adversary aircraft in the western world. It is the adversary aircraft of choice just because of its performance characteristics. It is a fourth-generation aircraft, so from an aircraft architecture standpoint, it can be equipped and configured in so many different ways… And it is also scalable given there were more than 4,000 F-16s built. It is still a production aircraft. It has a lot of existing support in terms of sustainment.”

Although Top Aces is the first commercial red air enterprise to operate the F-16, the powerful and agile fighter has a proven track record in the role, serving with the U.S. Air Force and Navy, as well as fulfilling a similar role with Israel’s dedicated aggressor unit, 115 “Flying Dragon” Squadron, which you can see in action in the video below:  

While offering the potential to provide a potent red air capability, there remains a question about the overall state of these ex-Israeli airframes. It would be expected that Top Aces would select those airframes in the best condition, but the Netz fleet is still 40 years old and it saw considerable operational use. Providing the jets can be brought into service without too much difficulty, there is also the matter of what kinds of contracts these aircraft will fulfill. Regardless of their age, the F-16s are fourth-generation aircraft, the first of their kind to be offered by a red air contractor.

The U.S. Air Force, in particular, has long called for more capable adversary aircraft, and in greater numbers, to adequately represent peer and near-peer threats, which would seem to open up a niche for the privately operated F-16s. On the other hand, this will have to be weighed up against the cost of operating such a relatively sophisticated asset. In the past, it is notable that the F-16 lost out to the F-5 in a multi-million-dollar U.S. Navy red air contract award. You can read all about how that deal played out here, but it is with recalling what The War Zone’s Tyler Rogoway wrote at the time:

The reality is that the F-5 is nothing near to an F-16 when it comes to many aspects of air combat capability. But for beyond-visual-range applications, aside from a larger radar aperture, an F-5 equipped with a modern radar offers one hell of a bang for the buck without losing all that much in terms of what the enemy looks like to the fleet aviator training against it. 

The F-5’s small size, both in terms of radar cross-section and especially its visual signature, also gives it something of an advantage over the F-16 for this specific mission set. But there is no doubt, the F-16 is a far superior platform that possesses a whole other level of kinematic performance over the F-5, especially in the within-visual-range fight. That being said, those facts just didn’t provide enough of an edge to make it worth paying over double the price for the same basic services. 

Of course, Top Aces isn’t the only one to have made plans to acquire additional combat jets in preparation to meet the requirements of the U.S. Air Force contract.

Airborne Tactical Advantage Company (ATAC) and Draken have both purchased second-hand fleets of French-made Mirage F1s, while the latter company bought an additional number of ex-South African Cheetahs, a Mirage III derivative. TacAir bought a group of former Royal Jordanian Air Force F-5E Tiger II jets, which it then upgraded into its F-5AT Advanced Tiger configuration. Finally, Air USA is in the process of acquiring up to 46 soon-to-be-retired F/A-18A/B Hornets from the Royal Australian Air Force. 

While it has been a long time coming, Top Aces’ acquisition of as many as 29 F-16s puts it in a unique position within the contractor adversary community, although there are potentially more second-hand Vipers out there that could also find commercial buyers. As it is, Top Aces is set to be the first private aggressor force in North America to receive supersonic, fourth-generation fighters, and we will be sure to report on the next developments for the company’s new jets.

Contact the author: thomas@thedrive.com