On May 9, the U.S. Air Force announced that it is creating a new aggressor squadron to conduct dissimilar air combat training, tactics evaluation/development, and support to the Red Flag exercises with the 57th Wing at Nellis AFB, Nevada, as part of the service’s drive to expand and improve its training capabilities for fifth-generation fighters.
Notably, the reactivated 65th Aggressor Squadron will be equipped with the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II. The employment of stealthy F-35s would allow the 65th to replicate some of the tactics and capabilities of potential fifth-generation adversaries, such as the Chinese J-20 and Russian Su-57.
Nine F-35As are to be assigned to the 65th AGRS, all early-production aircraft that have served at Eglin AFB, Florida on test/training duties and are not considered as combat-capable. Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson noted, “This move will allow us to repurpose early production F-35s to help train airmen for the high-end fight.”
In the same May 9 announcement, the Air Force also said that two early F-35As that are currently employed on trials at Edwards AFB, California, will be reallocated to the 24th Tactical Air Support Squadron, also at Nellis. The unit is equipped with F-16s and acts as the close air support training/tactics development squadron. Adding the F-35As highlights one of the key roles that the Lightning II is expected to perform as it supplants the F-16 in the front line.
The reactivation of the 65th AGRS marks another watershed in the topsy-turvy fortunes of the USAF’s aggressor program. Established with the 65th Fighter Weapons Squadron (FWS, later Tactical Fighter Training and Aggressor Squadron/TFTAS, then Aggressor Squadron/AGRS) at Nellis in 1972, the program grew to comprise two units at Nellis (64th and 65th), one in the Philippines (26th), and one in England (527th). In 1990 the aggressor fleet was all but disbanded, leaving just a handful of F-16s and a cadre of experienced pilots flying at Nellis with the Adversary Tactics Division, primarily to form the core of “Red Air” during the Red Flag exercises.
A resurgence of interest led to the reactivation of the 64th with F-16s in 2003 and that of the 65th with F-15s in 2005, although the latter was deactivated in September 2014. The 18th AGRS was established with F-16s in Alaska in 2007.
The transfer of F-35As to the 65th AGRS is expected to begin in early 2022 as new-production aircraft are delivered to Eglin. The base has been selected to be the home of a second Air Force F-35A training squadron, its aircraft being delivered from late 2021, with all expected to be in place by spring 2023. The second squadron will take up the spare capacity created by the departure of Marine Corps F-35B training activities to MCAS Beaufort, South Carolina in 2014, and the impending move of all Navy F-35C training activities to NAS Lemoore, California.
This plan is dependent on the successful outcome of environmental and planning assessments at both Eglin and Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia, to where the Air Force plans to send its Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptor training squadron. The F-22 formal training unit is temporarily operating from Eglin following the damage incurred during Hurricane Michael at Tyndall AFB, Florida, its previous base.