U.S. Air Force Stands Up F-35 Aggressor Squadron

 - June 10, 2022, 11:32 AM
Seen during the unit re-establishment ceremony on June 9, a 65th Aggressor Squadron F-35A displays an unusual splinter-style camouflage. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

The U.S. Air Force has re-established the 65th Aggressor Squadron within the 57th Wing at Nellis AFB, Nevada, to operate Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning IIs in the “Red Air” dissimilar air combat training role. Immediately prior to the June 9 establishment ceremony, Air Combat Command chief General Mark Kelly flew an F-15E Strike Eagle in mock combat against the 65th AGRS’s first F-35A, which was piloted by the new squadron’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel Brandon Mauta.

The 65th AGRS will support a number of activities from Nellis and over the Nevada Test and Training Range. They will include participation as Red Air in large Combat Air Force exercises such as Red Flag, joint training exercises, U.S. Air Force Weapons School training missions, and for a range of operational test and evaluation programs.

The decision to allocate early-production F-35As to the adversary role was made in 2019, part of an overall program to improve fighter tactics as a result of the growing fifth-generation fighter threats from China such as the Chengdu J-20 and, to a lesser extent, Russia's Su-57. This has already involved the use of regular front-line F-22 and F-35 fighters to play the part of the “enemy”, and on some occasions has drawn in the secretive Lockheed Martin F-117 Nighthawk fleet to provide stealthy targets.

“Due to the growing threat posed by PRC fifth- and sixth-gen fighter development, 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,” said Kelly. “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.”

Introducing fifth-gen fighters as Red Air into large exercises has already significantly enhanced their value by offering a more representative high-end threat. F-35As were employed in the Red Flag-Nellis 21-3 exercise, flying alongside the resident F-16 Fighting Falcon aggressors assigned to the 64th AGRS.

“Using the F-35 as an aggressor allows pilots to train against low-observable threats similar to what adversaries are developing,” said Colonel Scott Mills, 57th Operations Group commander. “Working in concert with the 64th Aggressor Squadron, the F-35 aggressors dismantled significant components of the Blue Air game plan and ensured that our combat forces had to work hard for every win.”

The 65th AGRS was previously active within the 57th Wing from 2005, flying F-15C Eagles alongside the F-16s of the 64th AGRS. The larger fighter was used to replicate the threats posed by such types as the Su-27/30/35 “Flanker” and its Chinese derivatives, the MiG-31 “Foxhound”, and Iran's F-14 Tomcats. The squadron was disbanded in 2014, leaving the 64th as the only Air Force aggressor unit at Nellis. In 2006 the 18th AGRS was established with F-16s at Eielson AFB to support the Red Flag-Alaska exercises, as well as provide aggressor training for Pacific Air Forces and allied fighter units.