JOINT-BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. – On a crisp and overcast afternoon in late October, four T-38A Talon trainers and two F-22 Raptors fighter aircraft from Air Combat Command’s 71st Fighter Training Squadron took off one by one from Langley Air Force Base in southern Virginia and reconvened over the Atlantic Ocean to conduct an aggressor training exercise.

The 1960s-era T-38s played both ally and adversary for the fifth-generation F-22s. But that combination of aircraft is liable to change in the next decade as the Air Force moves toward employing contractor-provided adversary air training, which would allow the service to flexibly select from a range of U.S. and foreign-made aircraft for red air training missions for its pilots.

The Air Force earlier in October 2018 awarded a cumulative $6.4 billion in indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity (IDIQ) contracts to seven companies to begin outsourcing its red air training. The companies who received contracts included Air USA Inc.; Airborne Tactical Advantage Company LLC (ATAC), a subset of Textron Airborne Solutions [TXT]; Blue Air Training; Coastal Defense; Draken International; Tactical Air Support (TacAir); and Top Aces Corp.

Air Force officials have indicated a move toward more contracted red air services for several years now. ACC Commander Gen. Mike Holmes told reporters in 2017 that “In a perfect world, we’d have the resources to maintain the aggressor squadrons that we used to have and … do it in house with modernized threats.”

“In the world we’re living in now, we’re limited in personnel and end strength,” he said at the Air Force Association’s Air, Space and Cyber Conference then. “If we can bring on some contract red air, then not only do we get some dedicated people to train against, we also reduce the amount of time that our crews are spending at a zero-sum budget for flight hours pretending to be somebody else instead of training for their primary skills.”

Col. David Lopez, commander of the 1st Fighter Wing at ACC, oversees the 71st FTS. He sees the future of adversary air training as including a mix of contracted red air, legacy aircraft, and potentially new aircraft, such as the forthcoming T-7A Red Hawk aircraft in development by Boeing [BA], integrated with simulators and other elements of live, virtual and constructive training.

The T-38A is helping to fulfill the 1st Fighter Wing’s red air needs, but as a decades-old aircraft, it is hard-pressed to accurately replicate the threat Air Force pilots could face from peer adversaries, Lopez said in an Oct. 31 interview with Defense Daily.

“Where we’re at now, I’m really platform-agnostic” on how to conduct aggressor training moving forward, Lopez said. “It could be contract ad-air; it could be T-38s; it could be T-7s. I just have a requirement for some adversaries to train against so that I’m maintaining the mission readiness of my pilots … so that when a combatant commander asks us to go downrange and fight, I can tell Gen. Holmes and that combatant commander that they’re ready to go do this mission.”

One key advantage of upping contracted red air services is that the Air Force would not have to operate and maintain a specialized fleet of aircraft, said Todd Harrison, a senior fellow and director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“You want aircraft that are as close to the threat as you can get,” he said in a Dec. 17 interview. “Those inherently aren’t going to necessarily be U.S. aircraft” as the Defense Department can be limited in the type of aircraft it can procure under Federal Trade Administration “Buy America” requirements.

“A contractor can keep those same aircraft and not just use them for the U.S. government; they can use them for training of other governments as well,” he added. “They can get more utility out of them by tapping into a larger market for adversary air training.”

The service is also better served by an ability to “surge and purge” more easily using red air services, Harrison noted. “It gives you that flexibility so you can switch between contractors, you can scale it up, you can scale it down. And the contractors themselves, … if the customer tells them, ‘Hey, I’m going to need to train against this particular type of aircraft,’ contractors will just go out on the market and look to buy used aircraft of that type.”

Under the October 2018 IDIQ contracts, the selected companies can supply the Air Force with access to a variety of airframes it would otherwise be limited from procuring itself. ATAC, for example, plans to use its French Dassault F1 Mirage and Czech L-39 Albatros fighter aircraft as well as Brazilian-built A-27 Tucano aircraft supplied by Valkyrie Aero LLC. Air USA Inc. possesses German-made Dassault/Dornier Alpha Jets and Russian-built MIG-29 aircraft, while Draken has South African-built Atlas Cheetah fighters.

Contracting adversary air services allows the Air Force to alleviate some of its squadrons’ workloads, said Air Force Materiel Command Commander Gen. Arnold Bunch in a Nov. 21 Defense Writers Group event in Washington, D.C.

“I do believe that is going to be something we continue to go forward with,” he told reporters. “I think it’s a methodology that we can use to get our pilots to training.”

Bunch added that he expects the Air Force to work on ways to integrate live-virtual-constructive training efforts with its new contracted red air missions via AFMC’s Life Cycle Management Center’s Agile Combat Support Directorate.

“We’ve got a lot of efforts in the Agile Combat Support program office right now to come up with a common standard for simulators that people would be able to tie into,” he said.

Will Roper, the Air Force’s assistant secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, said in a Nov. 12 Defense Writers Group event that he is a “big fan” of “making as much of the military as a service as possible,” and extended that ethos to red air training.

Multiple Air Force officials noted last fall that the service’s fiscal year 2021 presidential budget request will include plans to retire a variety of legacy platforms as it looks to prioritize next-generation capabilities meant for high-end warfare.

“We’re trying to retire systems that we don’t think can help us fight and win in the contested environment, and once you own something it is nearly impossible to get rid of it in this business,” Roper noted.

“If we don’t have to own [the capability], if it’s a service that we can have where we can scale up or down without owning that lifecycle, then that’s the way we need to go,” he continued.

Harrison, who has advocated for the Air Force to discard its small fleets of specialized aircraft in recent reports from CSIS, said there needs to be further studies to put together “an overall inventory roadmap for the Air Force that includes leased aircraft and contracted aircraft services.”

“These types of contracted aircraft, they’re the hidden force structure of the Air Force that we often don’t think about, but we need to plan for it,” he said. “It’s not just a decision of what do we buy and keep in our inventory, it’s also a question of what can we lease, what can we contract for as a service?”