Air Combat Command has awarded contracts for the first five U.S. Air Force bases to receive contract aggressor support under its huge “red air” adversary support program. The Airborne Tactical Advantage Company, or ATAC, has announced that it has secured the support contracts for Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, and Luke Air Force Base in Arizona.
Contracts for a further three locations have also been awarded, the details of which are unclear at the moment, but further news is expected shortly. The sixth location from the initial tranche of planned awards, the identity of which is not presently known, is on hold pending an environmental impact study. ACC posted its solicitation for the first six bases for adversary air support this past winter. Bids were due by March 31 for the locations at Kingsley Field, Oregon; Luke AFB, Arizona, Holloman AFB, New Mexico; Eglin AFB, Florida; Seymour Johnson AFB, North Carolina; and Kelly Field, Texas.
ATAC says its two awards are worth a combined $240 million, and that it will see the company providing air-to-air adversary training missions for trainee pilots going through the Formal Training Units (FTUs) at these bases. The combined awards provide for over 3,000 sorties per year for up to 4.5 years, with ATAC using its new Dassault Mirage F1 fighters for the work.
The awards are part of what is formally known as the Combat Air Forces Contracted Air Support (CAF CAS) program. It falls under a larger requirement to contract for such services at up to 22 operating locations: 12 for adversary air and 10 for contracted close air support (CAS).
The US Air Force’s Air Combat Command (ACC) awarded seven companies contracts worth up to a combined total $6.4 billion on October 18, 2019, to provide adversary air (ADAIR) support over the next five years. The seven companies awarded contracts were ATAC, Air USA, Blue Air Training, Coastal Defense, Draken International, Tactical Air Support (TacAir), and Top Aces.
“Performance is supposed to start within 90 days, we are shooting to get started a little sooner than that,” said Rich Zins, vice-president for business operations at ATAC as he revealed details of the company’s planned Holloman and Luke operations. “The contract is run on a sortie basis, not on a flight hour basis,” Zins said. This calls for 1,530 annual sorties at Luke and 1,558 sorties at Holloman.
ATAC is now part of Textron Airborne Solutions, and in anticipation of the USAF requirement, it procured 61 former French Air Force Mirage F1CR/CT and F1B jets, which began arriving at its new Adversary Center of Excellence (ATAC-ACE) in June 2017. The aircraft are being returned to airworthy status at this Fort Worth Alliance Airport facility. ATAC’s first refurbished Mirage F1 flew at Alliance Airport on August 22, 2019. The first flight was a two-seat F1B which made an initial acceptance flight.
ATAC’s Mirages have received upgrades to date to permit operations in the U.S. This includes a new GPS, air-to-air TACAN, new radios, and a new attitude indicator. The aircraft retain their original head-up display (HUD), and Cyrano IV radar. They will be capable of carrying an electronic warfare training pod, captive air-to-air missiles (CATMs), and some government-furnished and contractor-furnished chaff and flares. Zins said the contract allows for an interim configuration so it can proceed as quickly as possible, but that he expects more upgrades to be rolled out as the contracts progress.
ATAC says it currently has 10 Mirage F1s with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification, five of which have U.S. Navy airworthiness certification thanks to a contract to support operations from Fort Worth, Texas. This U.S. Navy contract relates to Mirage F1s supporting F-35s on test and acceptance missions from the Lockheed Martin factory here. The ATAC F1s have also supported the U.S. Marine Corps’ reserve F/A-18 Hornets of Marine Strike Fighter Attack Squadron 112 (VMFA-112) Cowboys,” for air combat training.
The contract with the Navy at Fort Worth followed disappointment for ATAC when it lost out to newcomer Tactical Air Support Inc (TACAIR) at NAS Fallon, Nevada. ATAC had enjoyed a long period of stable work supporting TOPGUN and fleet work-ups, before it lost out to TACAIR, the details of which you can read here in this previous War Zone report.
The ATAC contracts for Luke and Holloman call for a mission rate of 4-turn-4, meaning four jets will fly in the morning and then be “turned” for the second wave of missions. Zins says this probably calls for at least five Mirages to be placed at each location to allow for at least one spare, but that number will probably rise to six jets at each base to allow for scheduled maintenance.
ATAC is now working towards military flight release certification following the award of this contract. It’s five “Navy accredited” jets could allow the company to set up a USAF operating location early. “We have certified airplanes ready to go, ready to fly,” said Zins. The contract at Holloman calls for Mirages to support F-16 pilot training with the 54th Fighter Group. At Luke, the contract relates to both F-16 and F-35 training with the resident 56th Fighter Wing. Zins added that the work is related to training new aircrews and will mainly involve “basic radar intercept type stuff.” However, he added that the mission profiles call for the highest level mission system, known as Category C. The missions are expected to have a duration of around 1.2 hours at Holloman and around 1.4-1.5 hours at Luke do to differing transit times to and from the ranges.
The USAF ADAIR requirement calls for several different aircraft types including those equipped to emulate 4th generation fighters, with requirements including operations at speeds of between Mach 0.8-1.5 and altitudes up to 50,000ft. The contracted aircraft must also be compatible with captive air-to-air training missiles and electronic countermeasures pods, some will have the ability to carry infrared search and track (IRST) systems, and around half will require a radar with a range of up to 80nm (148km).
To date, Draken International has secured a significant amount of the USAF requirement, and it is currently supporting a five-year, $280-million ADAIR II contract, at Nellis AFB, Nevada, which followed an initial pathfinder study there. The Nellis contract specified that Draken’s aircraft must be capable of flying at Mach 1.5 and of completing sorties of up to 60 minutes. Draken has provided extensive support for the resident USAF Weapons School.
Draken International thas also expanded its fleet with former Spanish Air Force Mirage F1Ms, as well as 12 Denel Cheetahs from South Africa. The first of 22 ex-Spanish Mirages arrived at Draken’s Lakeland, Florida, facility in July 2018, and they are now in service supporting its contract at Nellis.
Although ATAC has previously supported a USAF CAS training requirement in Europe with Aero L-39 training aircraft, this latest contract is a major win for the company. It was a company that pioneered much of the contract aggressor work that is now in such dramatic expansion.