|PRIVATE SECTOR TO FILL GAPS IN MILITARY AVIATION TRAINING
August 17, 2016
Sandra I Erwin
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A confluence of factors is pushing U.S. combat aviation training units to the brink. With deployment commitments on the rise, neither the Air Force nor the Navy has nearly enough fighter aircraft or pilots to sustain training squadrons. It is a problem that has been a long time in the making — accelerated over the past decade by a combination of budget cuts, low pilot morale and a migration of fighter pilots to drone units.
The stressed state of aviation training has alarmed commanders and has compelled both the Air Force and the Navy to consider using contractor-provided aircraft and crews to supplement their own "aggressor squadrons" in live exercises. Also known as adversary or "red" squadrons, they serve as the opposing force in military war games and are expected to provide a realistic foe in combat training.
Aviation companies were briefed in March about the Air Force and Navy's future "adversary air" support needs. Both services have since issued "requests for information" from interested contractors. The needs are significant, according to one of the Air Force solicitations: "There is currently a significant gap between combat force-wide training requirements and adversary-air support availability, resulting in a shortage of 30,000 to 40,000 sorties per year." The problem is most acute at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, which projects a deficit of more than 3,000 sorties for fiscal year 2016. Nicknamed "home of the fighter pilot," Nellis is the military's largest and most demanding advanced air combat training base.
The military could start hiring more private companies to fill adversary-air demands as soon as next year. In a sign that the market is poised for growth, one of the most established players in the combat aviation training industry, Airborne Tactical Advantage Company, or ATAC, was acquired this summer by Textron.
"What we see is growing interest and need for outsourcing military training tasks," said Russ Bartlett, CEO and president of Textron Airborne Solutions, a Textron-owned company that was publicly launched in July at a military air show in the United Kingdom.
ATAC was Textron's first acquisition in this sector, and there could be more as opportunities emerge, Bartlett told reporters during a conference call.
The military for decades has outsourced pilot training but the business is expanding into new areas like tactical live-air support for conventional fourth-generation and more advanced fifth-generation fighter units.
"We created the 'outsourced adversary' industry," said Jeffrey Parker, co-founder of ATAC. The company's aircraft have racked up more than 25,000 hours as opposing forces to U.S. Navy carrier strike groups, and about 5,000 hours as Air Force adversaries. The industry is "exploding," Parker said. He is confident the business will grow under Textron ownership. "We were intrigued by Textron's entrepreneurial approach."
Parker estimated that the size of the industry will double by 2018 based on newly announced training needs by the Air Force and Navy. "They have a requirement of thousands of hours of training to be outsourced," he said. They do not have enough aircraft or pilots to fill this demand. ATAC operators currently fly 6,000 hours a year as adversary forces. The company projects the Air Force and the Navy will each require 3,000 additional hours per year by 2018.
With more F-35 joint strike fighter units projected to start training in the coming years, it is no surprise that the Pentagon is anticipating a bigger demand for opposing forces that can test the capabilities of the fifth-generation fighter. The F-35 creates a "generous appetite for adversaries," Parker said. "They need robust adversaries to challenge their advanced sensors. It's not always the most complex equipment that provides the most bang for the buck in training."
The company's adversary squadrons fly the F-21 Kfir multirole fighter, the MK-58 Hawker Hunter and the L-39 Albatros jet trainer. ATAC employs 30 former military fighter pilots. Based in Newport News, Virginia, the company both buys and leases aircraft. It charges for its services by the hour, and does not mark up fuel costs. The company is always eyeing the used aircraft market, including Israel's F-15s, Jordan's F-15s and F-2s. For electronic warfare training, systems are simulated. "If you can emulate capability electronically with virtual technologies why use an F-15?"
Financially it makes little sense to challenge F-35s with costly F-15s or F-16s that are not able to detect stealthy fighters, Parker said. "Nobody can see the F-35. Why not use good but not expensive aircraft?" Further, fifth-generation fighter units get better training when they are stressed by a large number of enemy aircraft coming at them at once. Ideally, Parker said, there should be 12 bad guys for every two F-35s, which is more than the Air Force now provides.
Bartlett cited recent reports of alarming shortages of Air Force fighter pilots as further evidence that the military will need to rely more on contractors. "The magic of this industry is finding the aircraft that meets the requirement at the lowest possible cost, and provide what you're getting paid for."