The 57th Wing at Nellis AFB, Nevada is to receive two Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-35As this summer, as the service prepares to re-establish the 65th Aggressor Squadron to help provide training to Air Force flight crews on the aerial combat tactics of potential adversaries’ fifth-generation aircraft.

“We’re in the middle of a little bit of a transition right now,” Air Force Brig. Gen. Michael Drowley, the commander of the 57th Wing, said Jan. 5 during an Air Force Association (AFA) Air and Space Warfighters in Action forum. “The 64th Aggressors–our [F-16] Vipers squadron of aggressors–are going to maintain Vipers, but as we get F-35s on this summer, we’re going to see the stand up of a 65th Aggressors with two F-35s to replicate fifth-gen capabilities so that we can get that much better training as we go forth.”

In May, 2019, the Air Force announced that it would reactivate the 65th Aggressor Squadron with 11 F-35As moving to Nellis AFB, Nevada–nine from Eglin AFB, Fla. and two from Edwards AFB, Calif. (Defense Daily, May 10, 2019). The 65th Aggressor Squadron flew Boeing [BA] F-15 Eagle aircraft, but deactivated in September 2014.

“We’ve used F-35s to provide ‘Red Air,’ but there’s a difference when you talk about a professionalized aggressor force,” Drowley said Jan. 5. “They study the [adversary] tactics. They know the presentations. They know the capabilities. That’s going to be the difference maker that the 65th Aggressors bring when those F-35s start showing up this summer. They will be experts in what fifth-gen aggressor/adversary air looks like. They’ll be able to provide those presentations and de-brief our Blue Air on what that means.”

During the AFA Air and Space Warfighters in Action forum, Drowley also spoke of the importance of integrating multi-domain capabilities into close air support. In 2003, during the opening stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Drowley led a 12-ship formation of A-10s.

“On the Green Flag front, what we’ve learned is when we talk about major combat operations or a large force-on-force, what we’ve seen in our support of the AFCENT theater over time, having done that for 17-18 years now, is that most of the close air support that we deliver is very focused on a single team, a single entity,” Drowley said. “When you look at a very mobile battlefield with volumes of fire and deep fires, whether that’s artillery or highly mobile rocket systems with an air component, it means that detailed integration needs to be even more so put together from the forefront, and the relationships have to be in place throughout. That’s the lesson we’ve kept re-learning, and why Green Flag is so essential.”

“Part of it is just executing the tactics of going out and integrating the land component with the air component and ensuring we’re able to lever fire and keep everybody safe while doing that,” he said. “But the other portion of that is the leadership relationships that we form with the Joint Force on, ‘Hey. Listen. That target set, we can take that, and this is how we’ll service it. This is what we’ll do to support you. In turn, this is what we need to be able to do that.’ Those are the lessons that we keep learning. The teams that go out and do that very well and integrate, we see great results, and the teams that don’t do that initially have a very steep learning curve in getting there and eventually get there.”

While F-35s may provide some close air support, the A-10 continues to be responsible for the bulk of that mission.

“From my standpoint, every platform’s got a capability that they bring to the fight, but it’s that baseline foundation of detailed integration from the platform all the way up to command and control and the relationships between the land and the air that really make the difference,” Drowley said on Jan. 5.

The Air Force has not prioritized a follow-on to the aging A-10. In the absence of an Air Force charge toward an A-10 successor, U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) stepped in with a request for $101 million for five aircraft under the armed overwatch program in fiscal 2021. SOCOM has planned to procure up to 75 aircraft over the next seven years, but those plans are in jeopardy in Congress.

The $741 billion fiscal year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, passed over President Trump’s veto, zeroes SOCOM’s $101 million request for armed overwatch and prohibits the Air Force from buying any armed overwatch aircraft between fiscal 2021 and 2023.

“The conferees recognize the importance of providing deployed SOF elements with the resources, enhanced situational awareness, and close air support capabilities required to be successful in austere environments,” the NDAA conference report said. “The conferees note that the committees on Armed Services of the Senate and the House of Representatives previously directed SOCOM in response to a fiscal year 2020 above threshold reprogramming request to undertake a comprehensive analysis of SOCOM’s armed overwatch requirements and potential materiel solutions for both manned and unmanned capabilities, inclusive of any potential modifications to extant capabilities. Further, the response also stressed the necessity of a thorough analysis of the future threat environment and impacts to concept survivability, potential changes to future doctrine, force employment, and the associated impacts to aircrew training and retention.”

Likely competitors for armed overwatch have included Embraer-Sierra Nevada Corp., Textron [TXT], Air Tractor, and a team of Leidos [LDOS], Paramount Group USA and Vertex Aerospace.