Defence Contractor Draken International Offers Air Adversary Training

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The increasing cost of using front-line aircraft to support operational training is becoming progressively more untenable, in terms of cost, availability and wear-and-tear on operational aircraft fleets. MS&T’s Dim Jones delved into the world of contracted adversary air support during a visit to Draken International.

The high purchase and operating costs of modern 4th- and 5th-generation combat aircraft in a climate of budgetary restraint, coupled with shortages of pilots in many air forces, have forced a rethink in the way adversary air and other support functions are provided for the front line. The problem is potential real-life adversaries are other 4th- and 5th-generation aircraft, and they are generally only to be found in the inventories of the adversary air forces themselves. Using them to replicate the enemy is extremely expensive for three reasons:

  • They cost a lot to run;
  • Every hour used in support activities is an hour of the life of that aircraft which will not be available for its primary role, and must be supported by the appropriate maintenance; and
  • Flying hours for front-line pilots are limited – valuable as experience as ‘red air’ may be, they need all the hours available to them to hone their expertise in their primary roles.

Adversary Air Dilemma

This dilemma was illustrated some years ago when, in a bid to reduce overall costs, the USAF reduced the number of dedicated aggressor aircraft in the 57th Wing at Nellis AFB, the intention being that the front-line squadrons should assimilate this additional task. This policy proved unsustainable, and prompted a reappraisal of how adversary air and other support functions could be provided.

One solution is the use of commercially owned and operated ex-military aircraft, suitably modified to replicate the desired threats while reducing the operating costs to a minimum. As a rough guide, it costs US$25,000 per hour to operate an F-16C/D, $35,000 for an F-15C/D/E and $85,000 for an F-22A. By contrast, commercial providers can operate older aircraft, even upgraded, for 20% of these costs or less; more sophisticated aircraft are available at commensurately higher prices.

It is self-evident that these types do not have the capabilities of the front-line aircraft; however, in the right hands, they can go a long way toward replicating the required threats, and an inventory of different aircraft types, with different levels of systems modification, can be tailored to meet specific training needs.

The ‘right hands’ are central to the solution; while the adversary aircraft may not actually have the performance or the systems of the aircraft being replicated, the knowledge and expertise of the pilot can go a long way toward redressing this imbalance. Sadly (or, in the case of commercial operators, happily) an era of constantly diminishing front lines means that there is currently no shortage of ex-military aviators on the market; and it can be argued that, while the air forces may mourn their loss, many would be leaving anyway. They may prefer staying in a fighter cockpit to a life in the airlines or elsewhere, and their expertise is being effectively retained for the good of the active military.

Finding suitable airframes can be more problematic. The late-Block F-16 is generally accepted as the gold-standard 4th-generation adversary fighter. However, these aircraft are generally in heavy demand by coalition partners and, although they may cost less to run in a lean commercial organisation than in the military, they are still expensive. Older block aircraft tend to have limited fatigue and engine life remaining and, indeed, may not be supportable by the OEM. Available ex-Soviet types (MiG-29, Su-27) tend to be of the earlier generations, would be expensive – if not impossible – to modify, and would require heavy reliance on foreign nations for support. As regards lighter types, such as the F-5, the best have already been purchased by other nations, two engines make them relatively expensive to run, they have limited range and endurance, and physical constraints make them difficult to upgrade with modern radars.

Notwithstanding these significant issues, it is apparent that, if the right solutions can be produced at the right price, there is a ready market for this type of commercial enterprise. The USAF’s upcoming Adversary Air (ADAIR) programme, estimated at $6 billion over 10 years to cover all of Combat Air Forces (CAF), would contract out nearly 37,000 flight hours to provide adversary air services, filling the gaps at the USAF’s 57th Wing weapons school and Red Flag training events, as well as operational test and evaluation missions at Nellis AFB, Nevada. The USAF released a draft solicitation in July 2017, with an expected contract award in 2019; meanwhile, the US Navy is expected to release a draft solicitation in the middle of this year. On a very much smaller scale, the UK’s ASDOT programme, which inter alia comprises Red Air, EW training, JTAC and maritime operations support, and air traffic control training, could be worth an estimated £1.25bn ($1.5bn) over 15 years. With potential rewards of this order, several companies appear to be in a position to ‘throw their hats into the ring’.

Draken International, Credentialed Newcomer

One likely adversary air player is Draken International. I had the opportunity to visit them at their headquarters on the perimeter of the Lakeland Linder Regional Airport in central Florida. My host for the visit, Maj Gen (Ret) Jake Polumbo was, until 2015, Commander US 9th Air Force and, prior to that, held many prestigious appointments, not least as Commander of the 52nd Operations Group (F-16), the 80th Flying Training Wing (T-38) and the 9th Reconnaissance Wing (U-2). He is also a Command Pilot with more than 4000 hours, most of them in all blocks of F-16, and a USAF Fighter Weapons School graduate and instructor. It was clear that I was going to get more than an industry-perspective view of the subject.

The company is only about five years old, and was founded by Jared Isaacman, its president, CEO and sole investor. Although a banker by trade, with no active military experience, he flies all the company’s aircraft, military and corporate; he also formed, and flies right wing in, the Black Diamonds formation team, which flies Aerovodochody L-39s. Supporting Isaacman is a Board of Advisors comprising retired senior officers of the USAF, USN and US Marine Corps with many stars between them, and executive and management teams with an impressive number of flight hours and experience in every theatre of operations and almost every current and recently retired US fighter aircraft, plus a good few other types, both US and foreign.

Draken International’s maintenance hub is also at Lakeland, and they currently have one other main operating base at Nellis AFB. There is also a facility at Mojave in California, where the company conducts flight testing and special projects. From these locations, tailored detachments of aircrew and groundcrew deploy to wherever they are needed, not exclusively in the US; for example, a Draken detachment recently deployed in support of a Fighter Weapons School course at Leeuwarden Air Base for the European Participating Air Forces (EPAF), a consortium of F-16 users comprising The Netherlands, Belgium, Norway and Denmark.

In June, Draken won a $280 million contract to provide more than 5,600 annual flight hours of adversary air services at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada through December 2023. Daily flight schedules of 18-24 commercial ADAIR sorties will support combat readiness training for the USAF Weapons School, operational test missions, Red Flag exercises, Formal Training Unit syllabus rides from Luke AFB and out of Hill AFB, Utah.

Three of Draken’s new ex-Spanish Air Force Mirage F1M supersonic fighters. Image credit: Draken International.

Draken Upgrading Supersonic Fleet

The aircraft fleet is over 100, with more than 35 in current use and 20+ in active use, responding to demand. Types include L159E, A-4, Mirage F1, Aermacchi MB-339-CB, and Mig-21BIS. The 21 L159s are ex-Aerovodochody, and the type is in current operational use with the Iraqi Air Force. The A-4s are a mix of ex-Royal New Zealand Air Force A-4Ks and ex-Israeli Air Force A-4Ns, plus some TA-4Js. The A-4Ks, although retaining the smaller engine, have received a major avionics and radar upgrade, and can carry Maverick, AIM-9, and PaveWay II GBU-16. The nine MB-339s are also ex-RNZAF, and the MiG-21s ex-Polish Air Force. There is, as yet, no call for the MiG-21s, so they are mothballed, but could reach initial operating capability within 12 months of a requirement.

A major recent development is the upgrading of the company’s supersonic capability, with the acquisition of Mirage F1Ms and Atlas Cheetah C/Ds. The 22 Mirage F1s are recently ex-Spanish Air Force, upgraded in the mid-90s, and are expected to achieve IOC in Quarter 2-2018. They are capable of Mach 2.2, with a service ceiling of 65,000 feet and 2.5 hours endurance. The latest modernisation will include Link 16, Helmet-Mounted Cueing Systems (HMCS), High off-Boresight (HOBS) Captive Air Training Missiles (CATM), Infra-Red Search and Track (IRST), advanced targeting pods and accurate threat missile dynamic launch zones (DLZ). Fourteen aircraft will be equipped with the Westinghouse AN/APG-68 radar, and the remaining six aircraft will have Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) Radar for Engagement and Surveillance (ARES).

Draken’s latest acquisition is nine ex-South African Air Force Atlas Cheetah Cs, and three 2-seat Cheetah Ds. The Cheetah is a result of a complete rebuild and upgrade of Mirage IIIs, based on the Israeli Kfir. These aircraft were regenerated at the facility of the OEM, now Denel Aviation of South Africa, by a team including many ex-SAAF personnel. The new supersonic aircraft are starting to arrive at Lakeland Linder airport and are scheduled to start flying acceptance sorties this summer. Once certified for flight by the FAA, they will probably move west to Nevada.

Eye-Watering Experience

The hallmark of successful commercial air support is the provision of a professional and credible threat capability at an affordable price. The platforms are one element of this; people are the other.

Dealing with maintenance first, Lt Col (Ret) Jeff Spann is Draken’s Director of Maintenance and Logistics. Five years after retiring from a varied and illustrious USAF career, including maintenance on F-15, F-16, A-10, B-1B and B-52H, and culminating in a post as Deputy Maintenance Group Commander for Ellsworth AFB’s 28 B-1Bs and its 1500 maintainers, he now presides over a very much leaner team (numbering just over 140 at Lakeland and Nellis), but an equally demanding role. Draken’s aircraft are on the civil register and have FAA airworthiness certification. They also have military certification from both the USAF and US Navy. Spann’s troops, mostly experienced ex-military and over-qualified for the jobs they are doing, deal with a significantly wider inventory of aircraft than they would normally encounter in a military environment.

Capt (USN Ret) Dale “Snort” Snodgrass is Chief Pilot and Director of Deployed Operations. The USN’s high time F-14 pilot with 4890 hrs, he leads a team whose experience and qualifications are, frankly, eye-watering. They are ex-USMC, USN and USAF pilots, with F-15/-16/-18/-22 and -35 experience, graduates of the USAF Fighter Weapons School and USN Top Gun, and Operational Test & Evaluation.

These qualities also extend to the Draken Management Team: the Director of Business Development, Lt Col (USMC Ret) Jeff “Magwa” Scott has nearly 2000 hours of AV-8B time, was the world’s first operationally qualified F-35 pilot and stood up, as Commander, the first operational F-35 squadron. If the performance of upgraded and refurbished 3rd- and 4th-generation aircraft can be enhanced, by means of the qualities of the pilots flying them, to provide an adversary capability that belies their vintage (the aircraft, not the pilots), this is the sort of team to do it.

McDonnell Douglas TA-4Js of Draken International on the ramp at Nellis AFB, NV, in support of the USAF Fighter Weapons School. Image credit: Draken International.

Pre-Loved 4th-Gen Aircraft Hard to Find

Draken currently has a further 13 operating locations outside the US. There is a facility at Nimes in France, and additional locations in the UK, The Netherlands, Czech Republic, Poland, Germany, Greenland and Canada. This structure provides the ability to mount frequent and cost-effective small detachments to meet customer needs, which, if not managed effectively, could have a negative impact on the stability, family and quality of life of those involved – among the factors which may have influenced their individual decisions to leave regular military service. However, and even though they retain the ability to vote with their feet, all concerned appear to be happy with the arrangements. The company has also developed close links with Florida Polytechnic University, who offer support in two specific areas of high-tech applied research – improving Draken’s global supply-chain logistics and modernising their fleet.

The ability to forecast customer requirements and provide an aircraft inventory capable of meeting them is key to success; the seemingly obvious choices are not always the best or most cost-effective ones – and cost-effectiveness is a major reason why the USAF and others arrived at this point. A $1billion investment can buy you 14 late-generation F-16 or 10 F-35, not including pilots, maintenance, facilities and fuel; alternatively, it can buy you 150,000 turnkey flight hours in aircraft such as the A-4 over a 10-year period, all-inclusive.

Pre-loved 4th-gen aircraft are a superficially attractive option, but are hard to find, would remain costly to operate and would not necessarily be any more operationally capable than upgraded aircraft from earlier generations. As CEO Jared Isaacman observes: “We can provide fourth-generation adversaries (electronic attack pods, radars, etc) for a fifth of the operating cost of an F-16 or F-15. That is the value of our service. We deliver enhanced training for a much, much lower cost. If we were to purchase F-16s, we would not be able to offer any cost savings at all.”

Draken is a relatively new but forward-looking organisation at the forefront of a rapidly expanding facet of the aviation industry, with a dynamic executive team, steered by a multi-starred and -talented advisory board, and boasting a management and staff both exceptionally experienced and well-qualified. There will be stiff competition from other providers for the lucrative commercial air support contracts that lie around the corner, but I have little doubt that Draken will be in the mix.

Multi-Talented Mix for Red Air Contracts

Team Red Aces – Leonardo, Top Aces and Inzpire – has been down-selected by the UK Ministry of Defence to compete for a contract to meet the Air Support to Defence Operational Training (ASDOT) capability. Shown: Top Aces Alphajet. Image credit: Top Aces.

The US Air Force Combat Air Forces (CAF) Adversary Air (ADAIR) and UK Air Support to Defence Operational Training (ASDOT) contracts are, of course, not the only prizes on offer, although they might be the most lucrative; nor are Draken International the only providers in the field.

There are several companies offering adversary air and other aviation support services, and all of them are expected to bid for one or both the ASDOT and ADAIR contracts. In addition to pure Red Air, other services that might be required by a customer air force are Joint Terminal Air Control (JTAC) training, Electronic Warfare (EW) Training, Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) and test chase, and air traffic and fighter controller training.

Montreal-based Top Aces (formerly known as Discovery Air Defence, recently reverted to its original title) provides support to the Canadian Armed Forces through the Contracted Airborne Training Services (CATS) programme. Its fleet includes Alphajet, McDonnell Douglas A-4N Skyhawk – acquired through the 2013 purchase of Advanced Training Systems International (ATSI) – and IAI Westwind 1124 bizjets. The company has also acquired F-16s in order to bid for the USAF CAF ADAIR contract, and is teamed with Leonardo and Inzpire as “Red Aces” for ASDOT.

Meanwhile, Tactical Air Support, headquartered in Reno, Nevada, has a fleet principally comprising upgraded F-5E and -F, although interestingly they can also operate aircraft owned by their customers, such as Su-27 Flanker and F-16C. The avionic upgrade to the F-5s includes Duotech radar and radar warning receiver (RWR).

The Airborne Tactical Advantage Company (ATAC), based at Newport News, Virginia and currently providing services to the US Navy, has a fleet of ex-Israeli AF F-21 Kfir, ex-Swiss Air Force Mk 58 Hawker Hunters, and Czech Aerovodochody L-39 Albatros. In addition, ATAC, now part of Textron, has recently acquired 63 former French Air Force Mirage F1s, of which they plan to retrofit the majority with new avionics and radar. Textron is teamed with Thales and QinetiQ for ASDOT, and includes within its portfolio the Textron AirLand Scorpion, which could provide other support services such as JTAC and EW training.

These companies are staffed by multi-qualified and extremely experienced aviators, some of whom are also in current military flying practice elsewhere (such as in the US Air National Guard). Their organisations are set up to support deployed operations; the CAF contract, for example, has specified 12 operating bases, from Langley in the east to Hickam (Hawaii) in the west. As regards specific platform requirements, the CAF ADAIR draft RFP, released in April, embraces three categories of aircraft and equipment performance, ranging from subsonic, with low-turn performance and 3rd-generation avionics, to supersonic, agile and Generation 4+ capability. Meeting the right-hand end of this spectrum at an affordable price could be quite challenging but, for instance, and although not itself a declared bidder, Saab is actively marketing a version of the Gripen C to meet high-end adversary air requirements, and Leonardo is doing the same with the M-346.

Although figures vary, and direct mathematical calculation may not take into account extraneous costs, the estimated contract values for the CAF US ($6 billion over 10 years at 37,000 hrs/year) works out at something over $15,000 per flying hour. The ASDOT contract is not yet quantified to that degree, and also calls for the inclusion of services other than adversary air. $15K is significantly less than the quoted operating cost of an F-16C, but it is also significantly more than the likely operating costs of some of the older-generation, and less capable, aircraft in the competing contractors’ existing fleets. Affordability will be a key issue, but the overall requirement will be spread across the full spectrum of aircraft capability categories, suggesting that there will be a role (and a demand) for aircraft more sophisticated than those currently available, and a budget which allows some headroom for acquiring, modifying and operating them. 37,000 is also a lot of flying hours and will probably require more aircraft than any bidder currently has active, so there may also be scope for partnerships, particularly since the contract is set to begin in 2019, and it takes a finite time to locate, acquire, modify as necessary, and obtain clearance for, new aircraft, to say nothing of the aircrew and maintainers required to support them. Interesting times ahead. – Dim Jones

Originally published in MS&T Issue 3, 2018.


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