The Air Force may have over 2,000 fighter jets, but it has less than 69 fighters dedicated to fly as adversaries for them to train against.
Those in the know are acutely aware of the massive resource disconnect between the “blue air” the Air Force has and the “red air” to support them for live-fly requirements.
For a generation, the solution was to use some blue air as red air. This “no-cost” organic approach sounded good, except it squandered combat aircraft life while pretending to be bad guys. It also cannibalizes unit readiness (pilots flying as scripted bad guys are not increasing proficiency at how to be a better good guy).
A few years ago, the Air Force tried to out-rate this fight by awarding a seven-vender
Combat Air Force Contracted Air Support (CAF CAS) contract, which basically established a new industry.
Each contractor chased down older, 3rd generation foreign fighters and slapped some training EA pods on them. That seemed to all make sense at the time for two reasons:
- The business case economics of the contractor
- The quantity over quality demands from the customer
Although the original contract requirement was for “realistic and challenging advanced adversary air threats,” it quickly became clear that the Air Forces’ “quantity over quality” approach was still wearing neon-colored leg warmers and stuck in the 1980s.
It turns out that not only is the Air Force buying more capable fighters…the bad guys are too. This is creating a widening mismatch in red air replication and unfortunately, unlike Vegas, you can’t just throw money at this problem.
It’s difficult to make the business case for a contractor to buy 5th generation fighters (even if they were allowed to) and cost-prohibitive to design a “training only” fighter jet to meet the evolving market needs.
This pain point is giving momentum to another solution: unmanned, semiautonomous adversary air platform, aka
A majority of the red air requirements are beyond visual range (BVR), something that formations of unmanned fighter-sized vehicles are perfectly suited for. Red air also happens to be the perfect sandbox to refine blue air manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T) technology and integration concepts.
MUM-T efforts you’ve probably heard of are Air Force Research Lab’s
autonomy algorithm program (that’s often confused with the
Sprinkle on some AI from DARPA’s Air Combat Evolution program and you have a formidable sparring partner…that can learn from your actions, adapt, and make it harder for blue air to defeat. Like we said, red air is the perfect sandbox to mature the technology for blue air integration.
If it were only that easy. It turns out that the biggest issue isn’t technological… it's cultural.
The cultural friction comes from those fighter pilots who can’t imagine how ADAIR-UX fits into their Operation Desert Storm reenactments on the Nellis Range, and those who can’t imagine how they could lose to an AI-enabled drone.
It’s hard to measure the hubris of an average fighter pilot, but it’s pretty high on the Richter scale. Weirdly, these are often the same tribes of people touting that the same technology is vital to integrate into the blue air side of the equation.