The U.S. Air Force is to move to using Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-35As for organic adversary air training for its fighter pilots at Nellis AFB, Nev., after the service declined to renew a contract with Florida-based Draken International for such training.

Draken has won several ADAIR training contracts, including one worth up to $280 million in 2018. The company typically refurbishes aircraft, such as Dassault Aviation Mirage F1s, and provides ADAIR training with retired military pilots.

ADAIR companies “do wonderful work for the Air Force, especially at our formal training units, our FTUs, where we train…how to fly,” Air Force Lt. Gen. David Nahom, the service’s deputy chief of staff for plans and programs, told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in response to a question from Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) on the non-renewal of the ADAIR contract at Nellis.

“What we’re finding now, though, is these contracts aren’t very effective at Nellis in that high-end training environment,” Nahom said. “What they provide is not giving us what we need. What we’re using is not only our Red Air professionals in the 64th Aggressors Squadron at Nellis. We also augment that regularly with F-35s [and] other aircraft that regularly play Red Air.”

“Adversary air is something we have to be attuned to, especially as we get to fifth-generation” he said. “The interesting thing is five/six years ago, we wouldn’t be talking about F-35s being adversary air because our adversaries didn’t fly fifth-generation airplanes. Well, the Chinese do now [with the J20]. As the China threat has stepped up, we have to step up our replication, and what the contractor is providing there at Nellis for that high-end training we only get at the NTTR (the Nellis Test and Training Range) and at the JPARC (Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex) in Alaska is not meeting what we need.”

During the Red Flag 21-3 exercise at Nellis last August, pilots from the 64th Aggressor Squadron flew F-35As as dedicated adversary air training planes for the first time.  The 64th previously had had Lockheed Martin F-16s.

The Air Force has also been preparing to re-establish the 65th Aggressor Squadron and equip the latter with F-35As to help provide training to Air Force flight crews on the aerial combat tactics of potential adversaries (Defense Daily, Jan. 5). The service de-activated the 65th Aggressor Squadron in 2014.

In May, 2019, the Air Force announced it would reactivate the 65th Aggressor Squadron with 11 F-35As moving to Nellis–nine from Eglin AFB, Fla., and two from Edwards AFB, Calif.

Nellis is also to receive F-22s from Tyndall AFB, Fla., for aggressor training.

The Air Force last year said it wants to add 17 F-35As and three Lockheed Martin F-22s to support the 65th Aggressor Squadron at Nellis.

“The Air Force’s current adversary air program includes a mix of F-16 Aggressors, T-38A/Bs, units’ own aircraft used for training, and air support contracts,” according to Military Air Support: DoD Has Increased Its Use of Contracts to Meet Training Requirements, per a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report for the House Armed Services Committee last December.

“According to an Air Force contracting official, air support contracts are used as a bridge until the Air Force adversary air program develops greater military capabilities to conduct training,” the GAO study said. “The Air Force’s plan shows that the use of air support contracts for adversary air training are expected to phase out in 2030 as the Air Force implements other training options with enhanced capabilities. Specifically, the Air Force plan states that it will replace air support contracts that provide adversary air capacity and bolster existing training capabilities through several lines of effort, including by reactivating formal aggressor squadrons. In addition, the Air Force is exploring options to acquire new manned and unmanned adversary air platforms in the future.”

Both the Air Force and the U.S. Navy have said that live adversary training has been and will be a priority, and both services want to co-develop a future advanced jet trainer at an affordable cost per flying hour to replicate some high-end threats, GAO said.

In October, 2019, the Air Force awarded adversary air and close air support training for Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTAC) contracts potentially worth $6.4 billion to Air USA, Inc.; Airborne Tactical Advantage Company (ATAC), LLC., a subsidiary of Textron [TXT]; Blue Air Training, LLCCoastal Defense Inc.; Draken International; Tactical Air Support, Inc.; and Top Aces Corp. (Defense Daily, Oct. 21, 2019).