If U.S. Air Force planners want the contracted, live-adversary industry, known as AdAir, to more fully address both live air adversary sortie demand and desired advanced capabilities, they must lay out a multiyear road map that encourages industry to make necessary, timely investments.

AdAir has had a sluggish start within the Air Force while the service struggles with major internal issues, as reflected in a study by the Mitchell Institute regarding the Air Force’s aging fleets of combat aircraft. The study, “Decades of Air Force Underfunding Threaten America’s Ability to Win,” highlights the issues generated by a shortage of fighter aircraft and the lagging procurement of new aircraft, namely the F-35. The Air Force also continues to be short on fighter pilots — a shortfall of 1,650 pilots in 2021 — which will likely be a continuing challenge as the airlines ramp up following the COVID-19 outbreak.

A lack of live, non-organic adversaries exacerbates both issues.

In 2015, the Air Force endeavored to start an AdAir program requiring “some” radar capability at Nellis Air Force Base, awarding the first AdAir contract to Draken International. In 2022, the Draken contract was terminated; the Air Force matured its requirements and has now contracted support from the broader AdAir industry with Airborne Tactical Advantage Co., Top Aces, Draken and TAC Air at five Air Force bases.

Notably, for the first time, fourth-generation fighters in the form of civil-owned F-16s were procured for services and should begin training Air Force pilots at Luke and Eglin Air Force bases in November 2022. Still, the program that started out as a 10-year, $6.4 billion program flying about 37,000 flight hours per year at 12 bases is rather underdeveloped, churning out fewer than 15,000 flight hours per year at just five bases, three years into the contract.

The adjunct of fifth-generation fighters has further complicated the picture in terms of cost, training effectiveness across multiple fleets and training availability. The Air Force will soon see if the addition of advanced AdAir capabilities at Luke and Eglin can meet training requirements and contribute with a value-added approach to training and readiness.

Live training in one form or another is critical to exercising pilots and aircraft as well as developing maintenance and logistics talent. Simulation is a valid addition to live training, especially in very high-end scenarios, but it has not materialized as a majority replacement. Cutting-edge technology, such as augmented reality, could provide value to the live training regime, given the Air Force’s focus on an open-architecture fighter force. The Air Force recently invested up to $70 million in a pilot program to help assess the value of augmented reality in training and readiness.

Another option for the Air Force is to add a new fleet of organic adversary training aircraft. The only apparent solution is to procure an adversary training version of the T-7 Red Tail described in the Air Force’s “Reforge” plan; it’s likely to be an approximately $25 million asset complete with a yet-to-be incorporated radar. For a 100-aircraft, roughly $2.5 billion purchase, the Air Force would have a state-of-the-art trainer with a max speed of Mach 1.06 as the primary adversary aircraft.

To establish an organic adversary aircraft program, it must be funded concurrent with other aircraft acquisition priorities and staffed by pilots in the Air Force, who are likely to be in short supply into the 2030s — two likely difficult hurdles.

AdAir needs a clear, long-term picture and a show of confidence in the program, whose funding has bounced between commitment and termination for five years. Statements from senior Air Force leadership continue to emphasize the short-term mindset when it comes to AdAir, and these can have the result of inhibiting industry commitment and growth. According to a Government Accountability Office report from December, “air support contracts are used as a bridge until the Air Force adversary air program develops greater military capabilities to conduct training.”

What might be missing in the conversation is the total value proposition of AdAir, including:

  • The ability to have aircraft and capabilities available without the acquisition cost.
  • A lower cost per training sortie.
  • A near-zero increase in organic, fixed costs.
  • Not investing in tactical aircraft that can be only used for training (and associated simulators, spares, maintenance and support personnel).
  • The organic airframe life savings.
  • An increase in the pilot cadre of the Air Force without actually having to increase active duty personnel.

A strong commit signal from the Air Force would result in more aggressive growth in aircraft and desired capabilities for Air Force training and readiness. Near-term additions to the AdAir program — such as active electronically scanned array technology and capabilities like infrared search and track, electronic attack, radar cross-section reduction, and support for development of the Collaborative Combat Aircraft concept of operations — remain options for the AdAir industry.

Industry’s willingness to commit capital and manpower to AdAir is there. But without a commitment to a strategic road map of funding and capabilities over time, the Air Force will not realize the full value of a program that requires such significant commitment from industry.

Jeffrey Parker is the CEO of Defense Business Strategies. He previously worked for Airborne Tactical Advantage Co.

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