Flashback report from 2014   |   all photos by Dennis Vink and Rens van Rijn © Phodocu

Since the ’70s Nellis Air Force Base is foremost associated with Red Flag exercises and colorful ‘red star’ adversary fighters. Today these so-called aggressors are united in the 57th Adversary Tactics Group; famous and very well known in the world, yet a very closed community dealing with classified intelligence and tactics on a daily basis. In a quest to unravel some of that mystery, we sat down with Lt. Col. Gregory ‘Papa’ Wintill, commander 65th Aggressor Squadron and Capt. Gentry ‘Cheetah’ Kramer, F-16 pilot with the 64th Aggressor Squadron who gave us a peek into their world.

Five decades ago, no adversary training in its present form existed and fighter pilots mostly trained air combat skills within their own squadron. Back in 1968, while experiencing extreme difficulty in battling the enemy flying their Soviet-made Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-17s and MiG-21s over North Vietnam, the U.S. Navy (USN) came up with Dissimilar Air Combat Training (DACT) to improve their pilot’s flying skills against other fighter type opponents. One year later this form of training was implemented into the curriculum of the newly established U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School, better known as ‘Topgun’ which started using Douglas A-4 Skyhawks to simulate MiG-17 combat maneuvering.

Red Stars arise

Proven to be a great success, the DACT method was later adopted by the U.S. Air Force’s (USAF) Tactical Fighter Weapons Center based at Nellis Air Force Base (AFB), Nevada which led to the activation of the 64th Fighter Weapons Squadron (FWS) by October 1972. USAF’s first ‘aggressor’ squadron acquired mostly well experienced and decorated Vietnam veteran pilots to fly a number of Northrop T-38A Talons, normally used for supersonic jet training, but now utilized to simulate Soviet fighter tactics. The following year the unit started deployments to various bases to train local squadrons with its DACT program.

Although this type of training was a success, the so-called Project Red Baron II analyses by the USAF showed there was a need for a larger scale type of exercise in which both pilots and weapon system officers (WSOs) could enhance their operational skills even more. This concept became known as ‘Red Flag’ and by November 1975 the 4440th Tactical Fighter Training Group organized its first edition at Nellis AFB . Each participant flew a total of 10 sorties within various realistic combat scenarios that included both aggressors in the air as well as Surface-To-Air (SAM) missile threats from the ground. Upon return these missions were fully reviewed by instructors in a debrief. Training participants were teamed up as the ‘Blue’ forces and had to take it up against the enemy ‘Red’ forces that included the aggressor squadrons.

Adversary Tigers

In 1975, a badge of Foreign Military Sales (FMS) Northrop F-5E Tiger II jets were no longer deliverable to South Vietnam, so these aircraft became available for both USAF and USN to be used as aggressors because of their  similarities with the MiG-21 in both dimensions and performance. At Nellis the 65th FWS was the first squadron to convert to the F-5 in October 1975, while the 64th FWS had traded in their T-38s by April 1976. At the same time United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) activated the 527th Tactical Fighter Training Aggressor Squadron (TFTAS) at RAF Alconbury, England, which was also equipped with the F-5E and followed by the 26th TFTAS at Clarke Air Base (AB), Philippines under Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) command one year later. All four aggressor units applied various typical ‘Warsaw Pact’-style camouflage paint schemes to their aircraft with red Soviet-style two-digit numbers on the nose. Later the distinct red star was added to the tail and by 1983 the squadron designations were shortened to ‘Aggressor Squadron’.

After a decade of service, the F-5s started to show fatigue on the airframe from pushing these aircraft to their structural limits during intense combat maneuvering, which resulted in G-force limitations and a possible upgrade program costing nearly a billion dollars. Also sightings of new generation Soviet fighters pushed the demand for a replacement aircraft, as the F-5 was lacking capability to mimic their flying characteristics. By 1988 it was decided to replace the F-5 with the more capable General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon, with the 64th AS being the first to transition in April, followed by the 527th AS in June. Now that the Cold War had come to an end, budget adjustments delayed the F-16 conversion for both the 26th and 65th AS, with the latter being deactivated April 7, 1989. By the end of that year, the USAF had decided to discontinue all aggressor squadrons and all three remaining units were disbanded. However, both aircraft and personnel from the 64th AS assimilated into the 4440th Tactical Fighter Training Group (TFTG) tasked with running Red Flag.

Eagle has landed

On November 1, 1991, the 4440th TFTG was redesignated as 414th Composite Training Squadron (CTS) under the 57th Operations Group (OG) from which the adversary F-16 division resurrected as the 64th Aggressor Squadron (now AGRS) during October 2003. After a decade of increased tasking, the organization of re-named 414th Combat Training Squadron (CTS) called for restructuring; while the 414th CTS remained as a non-flying unit solely dedicated to running Red Flag exercises, all aggressor activities including the 64th AGRS were realigned under the newly activated 57th Adversary Tactics Group (ATG) early July 2005. Due to a high demand for adversary training the 65th AGRS was reactivated shortly thereafter and received the McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle to augment the F-16s operated by the 64th AGRS.

Latest addition to the select and elite USAF adversary community has been the 18th AGRS  based at Eielson AFB, Alaska which in August 2007 took on its new aggressor task already flying the F-16 as the former 18th Fighter Squadron (FS). A year prior to that the PACAF exercise called ‘Cope Thunder’, held at Eielson AFB since the early ’90s, was renamed ‘Red Flag – Alaska’ and needed a permanent aggressor unit, rather than the periodic deployments from the units based at Nellis.

Joining the elite

What started out as a group of decorated Vietnam veteran aviators back in the early ’70s, has evolved into a mixture of well experienced pilots complimented by young talent from a new generation. Today, the requirements for new pilots joining either one of the aggressor squadrons with the 57th ATG are totally different as Lt. Col. Wintill explains: “We need to have guys come to us at least as a second assignment, so they have flown somewhere else already once and they are coming here usually at least as a four-ship flight lead. So they are fairly experienced. A lot of them we get are already mission commander, so capable of go and lead the whole package going into a war type scenario, which allows us to, when looking at that Red Air side, present that picture for the Red Flag participants and a lot of their LFE [Large Force Exercise] stuff in a very coherent way.”. While these requirements apply to both F-15 and F-16 pilots, there still might be some differences in experience depending on their background. Most F-15 pilots have solely flown air-to-air sorties in their careers, whereas F-16 pilots could have more experience with air-to-ground type missions. However, the 57th ATG uses that to their advantage according to Commander Wintill: “We may be a little bit different in our backgrounds, but that actually helps us to both understand what the Blue Airs are trying to get out of their training. We can provide a better adversary support because we understand what they are trying to get.”.

In most cases, pilots do not directly apply for a position with the aggressor squadrons, but are able to forward a so-called ‘dream sheet’ to their commanding officer with preferences for their next assignment and overall career path. The commander will forward a recommendation to the Air Force Personnel Center (AFPC) in San Antonio, Texas, which manages the assignments and career development of all enlisted Air Force personnel. With a list of all upcoming vacant positions for each unit, the AFPC will communicate with the squadrons on available candidates and take their preferences into consideration. However, the AFPC has the final say in where people go based on an overall needs assessment for the whole organization.

Mindset shift

Once selected to join the 57th ATG, all newly arrived pilots  will enter an internal training program and, depending on previous experience, the syllabus can take two to six months to complete. Assigned to the 64th AGRS a year ago, Capt. Kramer outlines the basic course curriculum: “It basically takes you from an aggressor wingman all the way up to a mission commander, being able to lead Red Flag pools with all the associated aircraft in the pools. So it starts out with just a few sorties to get basic familiarity with the aggressor mission and then you start to increase your responsibility from section flight lead to wing lead to mission commander.”. The course normally takes 10-12 sorties to complete and pilots already start participating in regular missions before the whole syllabus is completed.

Key selling point for adversary squadrons is their ability to act like the enemy. Taking on that aggressor role is a special skill set and each unit has several instructor pilots (IPs) to train and maintain this proficiency. “It is definitely a mindset shift from the way that we were used to in the Air Force as far as our concepts of operations in terms of employment.” Capt. Kramer states “The training program they have here does a very good job of preparing you and training you through the syllabus in the progression of being able to effectively operate in the aggressor role.”. Flying against one another is something that is practiced throughout a fighter pilot’s career. Here the IPs build on that to get pilots to the next level of professional aggressor status and teach them “how business is done” as Lt. Col.  Wintill puts it; “Every now and then we might divert into our old habit patterns and that is where our IPs will help out keeping that straight.”, so therefore training will always continue.

It is definitely a mindset shift from the way that we were used to in the Air Force as far as our concepts of operations in terms of employment. Capt. Kramer

Constant Peg

Although most insights on aggressor unit training and tactics remain classified, one possible key factor in the early success of DACT and adversary evolution was a series of top secret projects initiated by U.S. defense agencies. Under codenames ‘Have Doughnut’, ‘Have Drill’ and ‘Have Ferry’ respectively a MiG-21  and two MiG-17 airframes were acquired from Israel in 1967 and 1969 to be fully evaluated inside the U.S. at the Groom Lake secret test facility better known as ‘Area 51’ out in the Nevada desert. Technical data and performance intelligence from these aircraft were furtively supplied to the Navy Fighter Weapons School which caused a turning point in the loss ratio of U.S. naval aviators dog fighting against the enemy over North Vietnam.

The declassification of a sequential program codenamed ‘Project Constant Peg’ on November 13, 2006, unveiled the existence of the 4477th Test and Evaluation Squadron (TES) nicknamed ‘Red Eagles’. This highly classified unit operated a number of MiG-17s, MiG-21s and MiG-23 variants from Tonopah Test Range Airport starting April 1, 1977. Their mission was to expose USAF, USN and United States Marine Corps (USMC) aviators to these Soviet jets and execute DACT missions against all fighters in the U.S. inventory. Pilots as well as WSOs learned the best tactics in how to engage the ‘enemy’ in a safe and controlled environment. All pilots at the 4477th TES already had an aggressor background and their training program hugely improved the adversary skills from all other aggressor squadrons as well. With the Cold War coming to an end, budget cuts caused the squadron to stop official operations by March 1988, while some unofficial activity seemed to have continued until the unit was disbanded July 15, 1990.

F-16 taxiing out for another Red Air mission

Threat level

Today both the 64th and 65th AGRS support a wide variety of training activities, including large scale exercises like Red Flag, Red Flag – Alaska and Canada’s annually held Maple Flag as well as USAF Weapons School courses and individual units looking for a specific type of training. A lot is coordinated with the 547th Intelligence Squadron (IS), which is a non-flying unit also part of the 57th ATG and USAF’s Center of Excellence for adversary tactics analysis. They are responsible for the Air Force Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (AFTTP) 3-1 Threat Guide and handle all possible intelligence concerning air defense, weapon employment, adversary tactics and electronic countermeasure (ECM) for the Department of Defense (DoD). “They are key and critical for us to set out that scenario” Commander Wintill explains; “especially for Red Flag when we are driving towards a scenario and make sure we step that appropriate lane in the scope of what the Red Flag participants are wanting to train.”. Typically for Red Flag there will be conferences upfront where the 414th CTS and 547th IS discuss an overall plan with scheduled participants, setting the training scope and decide on how the series of missions will flow out. The aggressor squadrons play a crucial role in providing a certain threat level Capt. Kramer clarifies: “We have scalable facts that go from low capability to high capability and provide a threat picture that Blue Forces are looking for.”.

Once Red Flag is up and running, the aggressor squadrons are constantly communicating with the 547th IS and Blue Forces leadership before each mission. “Red Air will sit in with Blue Air at what is called a ‘coordination brief’.” says Capt. Kramer; “The Blue Air mission commander is giving the big picture scenario requirements and then talks about a lot of the administrative details as who has which sections of the airspace, at what altitudes and what some of the criteria are for the training rules.”. The Red Air mission leader will bring back this data and brief all participating aggressor pilots from both squadrons on the tactical execution plan for their scheduled sorties.

Coherent picture

The overall employment concept and mission tactics are fully integrated between the two aggressor squadrons and frequently F-16s and F-15s will pair up in engaging the Blue Forces. Both airframes are interchangeable in simulating certain type of enemy aircraft, although performance capabilities between the two slightly differs. Lt. Col. Wintill underlines the advantages of operating the Eagle next to the ‘veteran’ Vipers: “The F-15 allows us to go up sometimes a little higher in altitude and hold it just because of the bigger wings”. This results in both a little more maneuverability and some speed advantage.

Although no aggressor pilot at Nellis is dual-qualified, there are chances for pilots to fly with one another Capt. Kramer explains: “The opportunity exists for F-16 pilots to get a backseat ride to see what it is like to fly and sit in the Eagle and get that experience with them. It is a different aircraft so sometimes it is good to see the differences and similarities between airframes. It gives you a better idea of how to employ as an integrated force.”. Integration has particularly been emphasized the last few year and Colonel Peter Ford, 57th ATG Commander until June 2014, greatly contributed to that in tying all of the group’s assets together to provide a perfect coherent picture for any customer. Conveniently co-located in the same building, the 64th and 65th AGRS maximize their potential by sharing available resources and always brief/debrief together when executing combined missions.

The 57th ATG is also working closely with the 18th AGRS at Eielson AFB, which operates under the exact same standards as Nellis’ units do. Combined operations are therefore effortless according to Lt. Col. Wintill: “We can go up there and seamlessly integrate with those guys when it comes to participating in different events. There are only three squadrons, so just a small community where we know most of the people out there and we have good communications with them.”.

Myth unraveled

The 64th AGRS currently operates 20 Block 25/32 F-16s, while the 65th AGRS had a total of 19 F-15s assigned at the beginning of 2014. All airframes are standard and without any particular modifications to possibly enhance their adversary capabilities. “Our tactical execution may differ from Blue Forces, but by large the aircraft itself is pretty much similar.” Capt. Kramer states. He also unravels the myth about aggressor pilots being able to take their aircraft beyond standard G-limitations: “It is per the Tech Order [Technical Order], so our maneuvering pattern categories, G-limits and airspeeds are all the same for our configurations as they are for the entire Air Force.”. Standard equipment used by the aggressors include the AN/ALQ-188 ECM training pod and the Airborne Instrumentation System (AIS) pod that transmits real-time data to the Control and Computation System (CCS), providing a 3D image of all participants within the Nellis ranges.

In order to have a little advantage, the jets can be configured without any external tanks or with just a centerline tank installed, depending on the type of mission to be flown. “A lot of it is just related to the desired mission times” Kramer says; “A 2-bag jet [2 pylon tanks installed] will give us a little more time out in the airspace opposed to a clean or single bag jet [centerline tank installed] where we not quite have the same amount of endurance as you can imagine.”. So it is always a matter of performance vs. endurance.

On the topic of modernizing the current aggressor fleet, modifying all aggressor F-16s to the System Capabilities Upgrade-8 (SCU-8) configuration has been discussed at high levels in the Air Force, but nothing has been agreed upon yet. According to 64th AGRS Commander Lt. Col. Kevin “Flash” Gordon, the major benefit this upgrade would bring his unit is “the ability to replicate a more realistic and relevant adversary. As far as specifics, I can’t get into that.”. Among other features, the SCU-8 would include a Thales Scorpion Helmet-Mounted Integrated Targeting (HMIT) system and a Center Display Unit (CDU).

Touch problem

Since the Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptor made his Red Flag debut in 2007, the aggressors were facing new challenges in engaging this highly advanced fighter. The combination of its stealthy design and special Low Observable (LO) paint applied to the F-22 makes it hard for aggressors to find these jets by radar. In addition, the Raptor also exceeds in power and maneuverability over the F-16 and F-15. The second fifth-generation fighter has also already arrived at Nellis; four Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning IIs have been delivered to the 422nd TES which conducts operational testing of this new asset. The 57th ATG has flown against both the F-22 and F-35 when their adversary support is needed in “helping them improve the tactics that they are working on” as clarified by Commander Wintill. Definitely not an easy task, but the aggressors are resourceful and determined in putting up a good fight. “We try really hard to learn and try to give them a tough problem every day we are going to fly with them, but it is a difficult opponent.” he concludes.

Facing challenges against fifth-generation fighters

We try really hard to learn and try to give them a tough problem every day we are going to fly with them, but it is a difficult opponent.

Lt. Col. Wintill

Last year the 64th AGRS ran a trial program with an Infra-Red Search and Track (IRST) system that is able to detect stealth aircraft by IR signature. Housed inside the AN/AAS-42 targeting pod, mounted on the F-16 at the air intake right-hand station 5R pylon, the IRST was tested by the aggressors during Red Flag to examine its use in certain scenarios. Being a passive system, it adds the advantage of spotting targets without revealing one’s own location and the IRST could also substitute in case of radar jamming by the enemy. Much of the same IR technology is also used in the so-called AN/AAQ-33 Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod, designed for use with ground targets, as well as Forward Looking Infra-Red (FLIR) cameras for use at night or with poor visibility. For obvious reasons, Commander Gordon is not able to comment on the outcome of these tests, other than that the program has ended and the 64th AGRS no longer make use of this system.

Future changes

Within the ongoing “fiscally constrained environment” as Commander Wintill puts it, DoD inevitably is facing major budget cuts. Unfortunately this also affects the 57th ATG as the decision fell to deactivate the 65th AGRS on September 26 of this year. By then, six F-15Cs (plus one spare jet) and nine pilots will assimilate into the 64th AGRS and continue to operate for a duration of six months. Lt. Col. Wintill, who  took command of the 65th AGRS last May, has mixed feelings about this matter: “This deactivation, while we as a squadron don’t necessarily want it to happen, it’s what the Air Force needs to have happen for the financial constraints that were being put in. I love the F-15, but she’s getting old. We fly 1978 models, so they’re not the newest airplanes on the block. I’d love to keep my airplanes here, but that is not for me to decide.”. Wintill has not received new orders yet, but expects to be reassigned with another unit at Nellis or might get orders for a Permanent Change of Station (PCS) in the coming months. By now, the 65th AGRS is already down to only 9 aircraft with three more F-15s leaving soon. The six jets remaining will eventually be sent to the bone-yard at Davis-Monthan AFB near Tucson, Arizona. Current fact is that after March 2015, the F-15 Eagle’s 9-year career as an aggressor will come to an end.

Air Combat Command (ACC) is currently investing a substantial portion of its available budget in modernizing the combat fleet; fielding the F-35 and upgrading the remaining fourth-generation fighters have now been given the highest priority. As a training unit, the 64th AGRS does not fall into those two categories and thus suffers from a tight budget. Already struggling to present an appropriate threat level for fifth-generation fighters, a solution such as the SCU-8 update is needed soon to keep providing valuable adversary training. Furthermore, it is reasonable to assume that aggressor training will increasingly  be incorporated into flight simulators, as these advanced systems are very capable of providing realistic threat situations. Still, for large-scale scenarios and joint operations, a demand for some form of ‘live’ adversary support will probably remain. The F-16 will never be able to replicate stealth capabilities, but vice versa stealth aggressors would not be able to imitate non-stealthy fighters. These are all complicated dilemmas that need to be addressed in the near future. Without questioning, owning the best combat fighters is meaningless without having the proper means to train the people that operate them. In the meantime, the aggressor community continues to strive for only one thing: being the best adversary serving the fleet!  

Command structure

United States Air Force Warfare Center [ACC]

            57th Wing  – Nellis AFB (NV)

                                57th Adversary Tactics Group

64th AGRS F-16C/D* WA *gain six F-15s from Sept 2014 – March 2015
65th AGRS F-15C/D WA disband September 26, 2014

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Additional photos



Phodocu would like to thank the 57th Adversary Tactics Group, in particular 65th Aggressor Squadron Commander Lt. Col. Gregory Wintill and Capt. Gentry Kramer at the 64th Aggressor Squadron, as well as 1st Lt. Sarah Ruckriegle, A1C Joshua Kleinholz, MSgt. David Miller and everyone else at the 99th Air Base Wing Public Affairs office at Nellis AFB for their effort and support.

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