Air Combat Command plans to award multiple contracts for adversary air support at six bases as early as April. But the scope of the project, once anticipated to be worth up to $6 billion, will be much smaller than hoped.
Seven companies were awarded indefinite delivery, indefinitely quantity contracts in October 2019, allowing them to bid on specific task orders. Bids for the first round of awards, due March 31, will comprise just 8,848 sorties at six bases for the first year, plus an optional three more years for a total of 26,052 sorties. Awards are expected in April or May.
The original multi-award contract, known as Combat Air Force/Contracted Air Support (CAF/CAS), had been envisioned to cover 40,000 hours of adversary air at 12 fighter bases, plus 10,000 hours to train joint terminal attack controllers at nine Army bases.
The six bases, base sorties, and total sorties allowable if all options are exercised, are:
Operating Location Base Sorties Max. Total Sorties Kingsley Field ANGB, Ore. 800 3,200 Luke Air Force Base, Ariz. 1,530 6,120 Holloman Air Force Base, N.M. 1,558 6,232 Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. 1,100 4,400 Seymour Johnson AFB, N.C. 1,000 4,000 Kelly Field, Texas 530 2,120
“The math for the original plan was based on what we can do to maximize using contract resources to improve the readiness of the force,” ACC boss Gen. Mike Holmes said at AFA’s Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Fla., last month. “Every plan comes up against budgets. What we have now is a matter of what’s affordable.”
ACC is prioritizing fighter training bases, with the goal of producing more pilots. “If we don’t get the money to do the entire thing, I’d like to focus on supporting the training enterprise,” Holmes said. “The general priorities are the flying training units, [and] support doing advanced training units at Nellis [Air Force Base, Nev.]. That’s why I want to think about doing some research on how we can use the T-7 in different ways.”
Holmes said he’s “happy to have some investment in contract Red Air because it does help,” but if forced to make a choice, he would rather “season our pilots instead of seasoning contract pilots.”
The small contract air industry is still banking that more opportunity will come. Firms are building up and modernizing their fighter fleets to meet Air Force requirements with the hope that USAF will issue more task orders in coming years.
Mick Guthals, senior manager of business development for one such company, Tactical Air Support Inc., of Reno, Nev., said a “staggered release” of task orders was always the expectation. He anticipates additional fighter bases, such as Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va., which is home to F-22 Raptors, on the 2021 task order list.
“From an industry perspective, we want more bases so we can have more airplanes flying,” he said. However, he noted that industry also is challenged by how quickly it can get its air worthiness approvals and remanufacture its airplanes.
Tactical Air Support already flies contract adversary air in support of Navy predeployment training at Naval Air Station Fallon, Nev. Company officials say its F-5 Advanced Tigers are the most advanced F-5s in the world, with a brand new Garmin 3,000 flight deck that includes a 14-inch bevel display and two 5×7 displays. Tactical Air pilots also are flying with a Talis Scorpion helment mounted cuing system, which takes the information normally visible on a Heads Up Display and “puts it on a piece of glass in front of your eye,” drastically improving a pilot’s situational awareness.
“Anywhere you look, you get the same information you’d get on the HUD,” Jim DiMatteo, a Tactical Air F-5 pilot and company spokesman, told Air Force Magazine. “None of us have ever flown with anything like that before, so there was some trepidation initially of how it was going to work. After about 10 minutes of flying with this, I was just amazed at the technology … It’s amazing how quickly we all adapted to using it.”
Draken International is the only company currently on contract with the U.S. Air Force to provide Red Air. It has been flying Red Air at Nellis since 2015 with its L-159 Honey Badgers and A-4 Skyhawks, and it is starting to introduce supersonic Mirage F1s and Atlas Cheetahs to the mix.
Scott Poteet, Draken’s director of Air Force programs, said the company flew its first F1 in support of the Air Force Weapons School on March 18, conducting air-to-air engagements with F-15E Strike Eagles at 1.2 Mach over the Nevada Test and Training Range. Draken now has three F1s on the line at Nellis and is adding more monthly, he said. The company has two regenerated Cheetahs at its Lakeland, Fla., facility, and those aircraft will begin flying this summer and should be ready to be put on contract by the fall. However, South Africa has been “shut down completely” due to the COVID-19 crisis, delaying Draken’s ability to bring the remaining nine Cheetahs to the U.S.
Poteet acknowledged Draken is feeling the pressure from the new coronavirus pandemic, which he said is “affecting all elements of this industry.” Before the outbreak, he said demand for adversary air was at an “all-time high,” but in the last week, more than 80 percent of Draken’s flights at Nellis were canceled due to the virus.
“We are a company providing a service that only receives compensation for the completion of work. We have hundreds of maintainers and pilots that depend on stability and scheduling consistency,” he said. “Unfortunately, there are no discussions regarding the allocation of government financial or healthcare guarantees provided to us by the government. … We stand ready to support mission essential requirements and meet the demands of our military’s combat readiness training.”
ACC spokeswoman Leah Garton said Nellis operations are essential duties that directly impact USAF readiness, but mission tasks and operations have been prioritized since the coronavirus outbreak. “We’ve delayed numerous tests and routine events, and we’re focusing on modifying shifts to safely and smartly produce missions while adjusting to this new way of doing business.”
The pandemic is not expected to affect the upcoming CAF/CAS awards, however.
In a February press release, a third contractor, Top Aces, said the company planned to introduce fourth-generation F-16s into its fleet “over the next few months to meet the training needs of the U.S. Air Force.”
Top Aces President Russ Quinn told Air Force Magazine late last year the company was still working with the State Department to bring its F-16s, then located in an undisclosed country, back to the U.S. A company spokeswoman said Top Aces, which has more than 81,000 flight hours, planned to bid on the upcoming task orders, but did not provide a status update on the F-16s or say what kind of impact the COVID-19 outbreak might have on the company’s ability to bring the fighters to the U.S.
Garton said ACC will allow companies to bid on task orders even if they cannot immediately fulfill the work.
“Companies are able to provide proposals that detail a future start based on the projected availability of their aircraft,” she said. “The government will take that into consideration when making our best value determination.”
Airborne Tactical Advantage Company, a fourth firm, is also busy prepping its bid. Its parent company, Textron Airborne Solutions, acquired 63 Mirage aircraft from the French Air Force in 2017. Since then, ATAC has qualified its first F1 pilots, conducted its first F1 flight for the U.S. Navy, and opened a new F1 maintenance and training facility at the Fort Worth Alliance Airport.
“ATAC has leaned forward in anticipation of the warfighter needs that these task orders will address and is ready to support the Air Force from Day 1 without a delayed start to the work,” said John Rupp, ATAC’s director of global military sales. “ATAC has already procured and refurbished a fleet of Mirage F1 fighters, trained pilots on the aircraft, and optimized its facilities and maintenance to support their operation. ATAC is currently flying its F1s in support of customers and is ready now to do so for the U.S. Air Force.”
Other companies who received IDIQ contracts include Air USA, Blue Air Training, and Coastal Defense.