F-35 Stealth Fighters Are Revolutionizing The USAF’s Aggressor Force

We spoke to the boss of the 65th Aggressor Squadron, flying the F-35 — the Air Force’s latest red air incarnation.

byJamie Hunter| PUBLISHED Aug 12, 2022 10:47 AM
F-35 Stealth Fighters Are Revolutionizing The USAF’s Aggressor Force
65th Aggressor Squadron commander, Lt Col Brandon Nauta, and Lt Col Michael Albrecht, fly the first two aggressor-painted F-35As. USAF/TSgt Alexandre Montes
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This year marks half a century of U.S. Air Force aggressors, and it’s therefore fitting that the 65th Aggressor Squadron has been reactivated at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, in one of the most significant milestones ever for the squadrons that play the part of the enemy. The unit flies stealthy F-35A fighter jets, and it will set a new standard for the USAF’s aggressor forces as a whole.

The USAF aggressors stem from the Red Baron study, which evaluated the air war over North Vietnam in extreme detail. It sought to understand why there had been such a marked change in the outcome of air-to-air engagements in the conflict. In the Korean War, USAF pilots achieved a 10:1 kill ratio over North Korean and Chinese adversaries, but by the Vietnam War, this dwindled. By 1968, the kill ratio was an appalling 2.5:1.

Editor's Note: Welcome to Inside Nellis Week day five at The War Zone! Each day this week we have had a major feature on the aircraft, tactics, munitions, and people that are leading the world in air combat training and development.

Broadly, the USAF found that its squadron aircrews weren’t sufficiently exposed to dissimilar air combat training, or DACT, practicing fighting against different aircraft types. Moreover, its pilots weren’t sufficiently exposed to enemy tactics. The 64th Fighter Weapons Squadron was subsequently established at Nellis in 1972, equipped with T-38s initially and then with F-5Es, with pilots versed in enemy tactics. Sparring with these aggressors became a sought-after prize that helped pave the way for the large-scale Red Flag exercises that began in 1975, and were designed to give pilots a taste of actual combat, but in the safety of the skies over Nevada.

The first two 65th AGRS F-35As fly with a pair of F-15E Strike Eagles. USAF/TSgt Alexandre Montes

The USAF aggressor program has continued ever since but has ebbed and flowed in relation to perceived threats. The 65th AGRS flew F-15C/Ds for nine years until 2014 when it fell victim to budget cutbacks. However, after much anticipation, it was reactivated at Nellis on June 8 with a new mount — the F-35

F-15Cs of the 65th AGRS fly with F-16s of the 64th AGRS in 2010. Jamie Hunter
The 65th AGRS flew F-15C/Ds until 2014. Jamie Hunter

Lt Col Brandon “Napalm” Nauta is the new commander of the 65th AGRS. In an exclusive interview with The War Zone, he said. “I’ve been flying the F-35 for almost two years. I’m qualified as an Instructor and Evaluator Pilot on the type.” Nauta was handpicked to lead the new F-35 aggressors, having four years of experience flying the F-16C/D with the 18th AGRS at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska.

Aggressor squadrons typically fly the same aircraft types as the main Combat Air Forces, however, they have some clever ways to employ them very differently to the regular fighter squadrons. “Ultimately, it depends on the aircraft and tactics we are asked to replicate,” Nauta explains. “I do expect my pilots and controllers to be skilled and proficient in employing their weapons system. Any hesitation or lack of proficiency is a training opportunity lost to the combat pilot, weapons systems officer, and/or controller.”

Lt Col Brandon Nauta, 65th Aggressor Squadron commander. USAF/A1C Josey Blades

“The F-35 offers a unique adversary air platform that allows us to tailor, through mission planning software, the jet to replicate the desired 'red air' aircraft. These settings are determined by my squadron with the help of the intelligence community. The F-35 is already uniquely equipped to adapt in order to replicate evolving threats.”

Make sure to check out our deep dive into the past, present, and future of the Air Force's aggressor force with one of its top pilots.

The likely ace up the sleeve for the aggressor F-35s is mission data and the ability to rapidly re-program the jets to deal with specific threats and circumstances. The early-block aggressor F-35s will likely fall outside future growth paths for squadron F-35As, and it’s possible that the aggressors could employ bespoke software enhancements to make them highly effective tailored threat replicators. They may receive some of the planned fleet-wide upgrades in train for the F-35, although Nauta says: “I am not currently aware of future upgrade plans. If we were to upgrade, I would expect that we would do so only after all combat units have done so first.”

Questioned if the Nellis-based Adversary Tactics Group could establish a standalone aggressor software upgrade package for the F-35, Nauta said: “I’m not aware of any plans to do so. While this could be done, as stated earlier, the F-35 platform is already uniquely suited for an ADAIR role, so I don’t see this as a dire need currently.” 

Lt Col Brandon Nauta performs pre-flight checks before participating in an inaugural mission as a 65th Aggressor Squadron pilot. USAF/SrA Zachary Rufus

“F-35s have been flying as red air since the inception of the program,” he added. “The 65th AGRS now allows us to do this professionally and in a more organized manner. We will be able to provide the combat air forces (Joint and Coalition), a standardized replication template so we are all training at the same level.”

“We are currently in Early Operational Capability status. As we continue to grow both in facilities and manning that allow for an autonomous capability — versus relying on other units for levels of support — we would then be able to declare Initial Operating Capability. We are targeting the end of this year [or] early next year.” Nauta confirms that the 65th AGRS participated in Exercise Red Flag 22-3 last month. 

Reflecting on 50 years of USAF aggressors, Nauta says: “The aggressor mission at its core remains the same, “know, teach, replicate.” It has always been manned by the most professional and skilled operators, maintainers, and troops the Air Force has to offer. What has changed is the tactics and airframes we use to replicate. From flying F-5s to F-15s and F-16s, and now F-35s, we’ve had to adapt with what the combat forces have asked and needed us to replicate for their training.”

The first two aggressor F-35As for the 65th AGRS. USAF/TSgt Alexandre Montes

“We are slated to only have 11 jets thus limiting our overall numbers for a given training mission. However, as we have seen in recent training exercises, even a couple of F-35s as red air makes a huge difference. That said, it’s vital that we still integrate with our aggressor sister squadrons. Together, we are able to provide the combat force not only an airframe-specific threat to train against, but a composite red force that is threat representative as they will not just be fighting in the air domain, but the land, sea, and space domain as well.” 

The 65th will specifically cater to Chinese threat replication, but it holds a wide mission “The 65th will look to replicate any advanced fighter regardless of country,” Nauta comments. “No specific aircraft is in mind, but again, the F-35 will allow replication of aircraft that the current AGRS aircraft force is unable to replicate."

Aggressor F-35As and operational test F-15Es. USAF/TSgt Alexandre Montes

“It is critical that we as an aggressor force are postured to provide the best and most realistic replication to the combat forces. As other countries grow in their capabilities, so too must we. The F-35 is the logical and natural next step in that evolution.”

The first two aggressor F-35s assigned to the 65th AGRS were unveiled in June with bespoke aggressor patterns, possibly designed to mimic the Chinese J-20 fighter. A number of schemes for the subsequent F-35s have been teased on social media, but it’s not clear if they will ever make it to paint on an actual jet. “I am not aware of any other paint schemes at this time,” says Nauta. “The current scheme is a perfect fit for a dissimilar force.”

Contact the editor: Tyler@thedrive.com

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