US pilots are about to dogfight one of the world's toughest opponents — the Air Force's own F-35 fighters

  • The Air Force is planning to add a new, more advanced wrinkle to its “red air” training.
  • The service is moving 11 F-35As to serve in the “red air” role, putting pilots in other advanced jets through their paces in order to prepare them for a high-end fight.
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ABOARD A C-37 MILITARY AIRCRAFT — US military pilots who head toNellis Air Force Base, Nevada, will soon find out what it’s like to go up against anF-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

The service earlier this month announced that it is reactivating the 65th Aggressor Squadron and moving 11F-35A Lightning IIs to the base to serve asaggressor air, or “red air,” training. The move is part of a larger initiative to give pilots the experience they’ll need in a high-end conflict.

While advanced jets acting as “red air” isn’t new, theAir Force sees the necessity to craft an aggressor squadron made up entirely of the Pentagon’s premier jet, according to the service’s outgoing top civilian. She says it makes solid economic sense.

A 64th Aggressor pilot on the flight line after a Red Flag 17-4 exercise sortie on Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, August 25, 2017.US Air Force/Senior Airman Kevin Tanenbaum

“And here’s the reason: We’re talking about the early F-35s, so in order to bring them up to Block 4 [software configuration] standards, it would take about $15 million a piece to retrofit them. Instead, we can use them as aggressors quite well,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told Military.com in a recent interview. “We need to be able to simulate a high-end adversary, and this is a prettycost-effective way to do it.”

Military.com traveled with Wilson on one of her last trips to Air University atMaxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, on May 14 before shedeparts the Pentagon on Friday to take her new position as president of the University of Texas at El Paso.

Two of the F-35s are coming fromEdwards Air Force Base, California;Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, is providing the rest.Eglin is planning for new F-35s on its flight lines; its older fifth-generation fighters won’t transfer to Nellis until at least 2022, the service said in a release.

China’s Chengdu J-20 and Russia’sSu-57 stealth fighter are pushing the United States in the competition to possess the best fifth-generation fighters in the world.

US fighter pilots are eager to train against a stronger adversary.

Three F-35A Lightning IIs from the 62nd Fighter Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada during Red Flag 19-2, March 14, 2019.US Air Force/Airman 1st Class Bryan Guthrie

“TheF-22 [Raptor] guys are hungry to get at a fifth-gen adversarylike a [Chinese] J-20,” a fighter pilot told Military.com in 2017. “The problem is, no squadron can replicate it unless you have dedicated fighter [squadrons of aircraft like the F-35 or F-22] acting as adversary air.”

Pilots attend Nellis’ Weapons School — the Air Force’s version of “Top Gun,” stood up after the Vietnam War — to train on the latest and greatest techniques.

Using the F-35s “willallow our pilots to study adversary tactics,” Wilson said.

“Right now, our F-35s out at Nellis, they see everybody so far away, and they kill them so fast, it is a delightful, unfair fight,” she added. “We have to prepare for the high-end fight, and that means train our pilots … against fifth-generation aircraft. We’ve got to do that somehow.”

— Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at@Oriana0214.

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