Long gone are the days when the U.S. military was the only nation that flies stealth fighters. China, as well as Russia, have joined the stealth club. Now, the U.S. Air Force has a new program to use F-35s and teach pilots how to take on other 5th generation fighters, like China’s J-20: The US Air Force reactivated the 65th Aggressor Squadron and unveiled the first F-35 stealth fighter assigned to the unit in a ceremony at Nellis Air Force Base this month.
The Air Force’s “aggressor” squadrons replicate the tactics and techniques of adversaries in exercises with other US pilots, and reactivating the 65th squadron with F-35s reflects the service’s efforts to keep up with the threat it sees from China, which is developing its own advanced aircraft.
Prior to the ceremony, Gen. Mark Kelly, who oversees the organization, training, and maintenance of combat-ready units as head of Air Combat Command, flew an F-15E against the first F-35 assigned to the 65th Squadron, which was piloted by the squadron’s new commander, Lt. Col. Brandon Nauta.
The F-35 and the F-22 are considered fifth-generation jets because of their advanced capabilities, including low-observable technology. The only other fifth-generation jets in operation are flown by Russia and China. F-15s and F-16s are considered fourth-generation fighters and lack stealth characteristics
Because of “the growing threat” posed by China’s development of fifth- and sixth-generation jets, “we must use a portion of our daily fifth-generation aircraft today at Langley, Elmendorf, Hill, Eielson, and now Nellis to replicate adversary fifth-generation capabilities,” Kelly said in a release, referencing other US Air Force bases.
“Precisely because we have this credible threat, when we do replicate a fifth-gen adversary, it has to be done professionally. That’s the Aggressors,” Kelly added.
The 65th Aggressor Squadron flew F-15s out of Nellis from 2005 to 2014. After its deactivation, the 64th Aggressor Squadron, which flies F-16s, continued the mission. In 2019, Air Force officials announced plans to reactivate the 65th Squadron and assign it F-35As in order to help prepare pilots for “the high-end fight.”
During an exercise last summer, F-35s worked “in concert” with the 64th Squadron’s F-16s in the “Red Air” role and “dismantled significant components of the ‘Blue Air’ game plan,” Col. Scott Mills, commander of the Nellis-based 57th Operations Group, said in the release.
“Using the F-35 as an aggressor allows pilots to train against low-observable threats similar to what adversaries are developing,” Mills said.
‘Step up our replication’
The Chinese air force and navy now have the world’s third-largest aviation force. Many of China’s fighter jets were bought or copied from the Soviets and Russians, but Beijing has also developed its own fighters, bombers, and special-mission aircraft, and the Pentagon has said China’s air force is catching up to its Western counterparts.
The J-20 stealth fighter, which is believed to have been developed with designs stolen from the US, still faces challenges, like engine problems that limit its capabilities, but US commanders have noted that China is making progress with the jet.
“What we’re noticing is they are flying it pretty well,” Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach, commander of US Pacific Air Forces, said of the J-20 this spring.
Wilsbach said it wasn’t clear what in role the J-20 would be used but described an encounter “where we got relatively close to the J-20s with our F-35s in the East China Sea and were relatively impressed with command-and-control that was associated with the J-20s.”
The US Air Force has for years relied on contractors flying older jets — including Russian MiGs and Sukhois and used F-16s — to supplement its aggressor training, but the service believes that is no longer an effective option in the face of increasingly sophisticated threats.
“These companies do wonderful work for the Air Force, especially at our formal training units” where pilots receive basic flight training, Lt. Gen. David Nahom, Air Force deputy chief of staff for plans and programs, said at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in May.
“What we are finding now, though, is these contracts aren’t very effective at Nellis in that high-end training environment,” Nahom added.
In questions to Nahom, Sen. Jacky Rosen of Nevada expressed concern about the Air Force’s plans for aggressor training, noting that private firms provide 63% of aggressor flying hours and that by ending contracts with them at Nellis without a firm plan to replace them with F-35s the service risked creating a “capability gap” that could affect overall training capacity.
Nahom underscored the growing challenge posed by China and said contractors at Nellis were “not meeting what we need” to prepare.
“Five, six years ago, we wouldn’t be talking about F-35s being adversary air because our adversaries didn’t fly fifth-generation airplanes. Well, the Chinese do now,” Nahom said. “As the China threat has stepped up, we have to step up our replication.”
Christopher Woody edits and reports on defense and security issues. He is based in Washington, DC.