Preparations Underway at Nellis for F-35 Aggressors

A black F-35, painted in the camouflage scheme of a Russian Su-57, flies with an F-16C from the 64th Aggressor Squadron at Nellis AFB, Nev., in this artist illustration. The Air Force has not determined if the F-35s that will be assigned to the 65th Aggressor Squadron will have an aggressor paint scheme. Photo illustration from 57th Wing Commander Gen. Robert Novotny's Facebook page.

Nellis AFB, Nev., already is busy planning for the reactivation of the 65th Aggressor Squadron, even though it’s not slated to start receiving F-35 strike fighters until early 2022.

“For the Adversary Tactics Group, this is a really big deal for us. Our mission set is to know, teach, and replicate the threat in air, space, and cyberspace. From my vantage point, we’re really good at knowing and teaching the threat, but we have some challenges in the replication area,” Col. Travolis Simmons, commander of the 57th ATG, told Air Force Magazine recently. “The F-35 is really going to assist in addressing some of those challenges.”

The 65th Aggressor Squadron flew F-15s at Nellis for nearly a decade before it was inactivated in 2014 due to budget cuts, but the service announced last month it was bringing the squadron back and reassigning nine non-combat capable F-35As from Eglin AFB, Fla., to the aggressor role. Two more F-35s will move from Edwards AFB, Calif., to Nellis to join the 24th Tactical Air Support Squadron, allowing for additional close air support training with F-35s.

The unit, which will include 194 military personnel and 37 contract personnel, will require an additional 60,000 square feet of facilities and 300,000 square feet of ramp space, said Simmons. The exact military construction ask is still being worked out, but Simmons said the service will need to build one new hangar and more sunshades.

Between the 64th Aggressor Squadron’s F-16s, Draken International’s fleet of contracted Red Air, and visiting aircraft that fly in for large-scale exercises such as Red Flag, real estate already is at a premium at Nellis, but Simmons said the service doesn’t expect to have to increase the ramp space.

“Obviously, at Nellis we’re working through that right now, where that space is going to be,” he said, noting the military construction projects likely will be funded in the service’s Fiscal 2021 budget.

Draken is on contract to fly about 5,600 hours of adversary air at Nellis per year, but the service is hoping to eventually increase that number to 7,500 hours under a follow-on competition. It’s not yet clear how many hours the 65th AGRS will fly, or how that will compare to the 64th AGRS already at Nellis or the contract air. Simmons said that will largely depend on the training need and what maintainers are able to support.

Although the F-35s coming to Nellis are some of the oldest in the Air Force, the addition of fifth generation aggressors will allow the service to replicate the full spectrum of potential adversaries.

“Obviously, with the stealth capability that the F-35 is going to bring to the fight, I don’t have a way to replicate that right now,” Simmons said. “It’s going to be a huge increase into what we’re actually able to provide as far as a real threat representative asset for blue to train against.”

Sensor fusion is another capability inherent in fifth generation aircraft, and something the US would expect Russia’s Su-57 or China’s J-20 to take advantage of in a potential air battle, that is difficult to replicate with legacy aircraft, he added.

When the service first announced that F-35s would be playing aggressors at Nellis, aviation enthusiasts quickly began sharing a photo of a black F-35, painted in the camouflage scheme of a Su-57, flying alongside an F-16C from the 64th Aggressor Squadron. When asked if it’s even possible to paint the F-35 without damaging its low observability stealth coating, Simmons said that’s something the Air Force is still looking in to.

“No decision has been made on whether or not we’ll paint the F-35s in an aggressor scheme, but more to follow,” he said, noting the service is currently discussing the idea with F-35 manufacturer Lockheed Martin and “our experts” to “figure out what we’re capable of doing without impacting the overall capability of the airplane.”