The United States Air Force is about to lose a unique capability with the deactivation of the 65th Aggressor Squadron (AGRS) and its distinctive fleet of camouflaged Boeing F-15 Eagles on 26 September 2014. Chris Wood reports.

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The Commander’s aircraft passes by the distinctive Air Traffic Control tower at Nellis during its landing role on Runway 21L at the end of a Red Flag mission © Chris Wood –

The ‘Aggressor’ concept dates back to the Vietnam War and came about as a result of the high combat loss rate being experienced in that conflict. The idea was to provide pilots with combat training against different aircraft, known as Dissimilar Air Combat Training (DACT), but utilising tactics known to be used by potential adversaries to better prepare the pilots for actual combat. The aggressors replicate the capabilities of the aircraft they are simulating, rather than the full capabilities of their aircraft.

The first USAF aggressor unit was the 64th Fighter Weapons Squadron (FWS) which was activated at Nellis in the autumn of 1972, operating the Northrop T-38A Talon. This was joined by the 65th FWS in the summer of 1975 and followed by the establishment of the famous Red Flag programme in November of that year. Following the collapse of Vietnam a number of Northrop F-5E Tiger IIs, which had been ordered for the South Vietnamese Air Force, became available and replaced the T-38s. Two further aggressor squadrons were established around this time, the 26th Tactical Fighter Training Squadron (TFTS) at Clark AFB in the Philippines and the 527th TFTS at RAF Alconbury in England. The 26th started flying in January 1976 with surplus T-38s from Nellis before re-equipping with the F-5E, whilst the 527th operated the F-5E from its formation in April 1976. The T-38A and the F-5E had been chosen as they had characteristics similar to the MiG-21, the main threat aircraft at that time.

Additionally, 1977 had seen the establishment of the Constant Peg programme, which saw USAF, US Navy, and US Marine Corps pilots flying various MiG fighters from Tonopah, on the north side of the Nellis ranges, in an aggressor role.

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65th AGRS F-15C at the Last Chance before departing from Nellis for a Red Flag mission © Chris Wood –

By the late ‘80s the F-5Es were starting to become worn out and newer and more capable Soviet aircraft were appearing, so it was decided to replace them with the General Dynamics F-16C Fighting Falcon. The 64th started operating some borrowed A-model F-16s in April 1988, before receiving its own from the factory in July ’89. The 26th transferred to Kadena AFB in Okinawa in October 1988 and also borrowed some F-16Cs, whilst the 527th moved to RAF Bentwaters in June 1988 to re-equip with the F-16C.

However, the end of the Cold War and subsequent budget constraints resulted in the USAF aggressor squadrons being disbanded in 1990 but a reduced complement of F-16Cs were retained and used by the 414th Composite Training Squadron (CTS), otherwise known as Red Flag, which was part of the Adversary Tactics Division at Nellis.

In 2003 the demand for professional adversaries became such that the 64th was reactivated and the aircraft transferred from the 414th. The 64th Aggressor Squadron, as it was known more recently, received around 20 F-16Cs.

In July 2005 the 57th Adversary Tactics Group (ATG) was set up at Nellis to consolidate the activities of all the aggressor squadrons. As well as flying squadrons, the 57th ATG now also includes the 57th Information Aggressor Squadron, the 507th Air Defence Aggressor Squadron, the 527th Space Aggressor Squadron, the 547th Intelligence Squadron and the 57th Adversary Tactics Support Squadron.

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Marked for the 57th ATG, this F-15C is turning finals for Runway 21R in a classic Nellis shot © Chris Wood –

The 65th AGRS was reactivated in January 2006, as part of the 57th ATG at Nellis, to operate the F-15 Eagle in the aggressor role. At the same time plans were made for the 18th Fighter Squadron at Eielson AFB, Alaska, to become an aggressor unit, and it was operational in October 2007 as the 18th AGRS flying the F-16.

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The second aircraft to carry the Commander’s markings heads out from Nellis to the ranges in beautiful late-in-the-day light © Chris Wood –

Initial plans for the 65th called for nine aircraft, building up to a 24 aircraft fleet. However, only seven aircraft – four single-seat F-15Cs and three two-seat F-15Ds – had arrived at Nellis by May 2006. Three of the aircraft were painted in a two-tone brown colour scheme, the other four in a two-tone blue scheme, both different to the schemes worn by the F-16s of the 64th.

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Another classic Nellis shot, of one of the squadron’s F-15Ds departing off ‘the 3s’ and doing the ‘Flex’ turnout, which sees them keeping low and flying around the back of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway © Chris Wood –

Probably the squadron’s best known activity has been the Red Flag series of exercises, but it also supported the Nellis-based Weapons School’s training and took its aircraft on roadshows to various bases around the country. According to Lt Col Greg ‘Papa’ Wintill, the last commander of the 65th, the squadron also assisted with the testing of various different aircraft, such as the F-15, F-16, F/A-18 Hornet, F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lightning II.

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Alongside a KC-135R tanker over the Nellis ranges with the refuelling door open during a Red Flag exercise © Paul Filmer –

Tragedy struck on 30 July 2008 when F-15D 85-0131 crashed near Rachel, Nevada, with the loss of the squadron commander, Lt Col Thomas ‘Moses’ Bouley. The rear-seat occupant, an RAF exchange pilot, ejected and suffered minor injuries.

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85-0131 seen at the 2006 Open House © Chris Wood –

The big expansion did eventually occur in the summer of 2010 when the squadron strength was built up to 20 aircraft. These aircraft were all new to the squadron, replacing the original fleet, and most were drawn from the initial 1978 F-15C production batch. One aircraft didn’t stay very long, so the fleet settled at 19 aircraft.

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This aircraft had transferred to the 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron at Nellis by October 2012 ©Chris Wood –

Again, they were in a mix of the two-tone brown and blue colour schemes, until joined by a new ‘splinter’ scheme which first appeared in October 2011.

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The first aircraft to wear the ‘splinter’ scheme © Chris Wood –

Three aircraft subsequently received this scheme, whilst two of the aircraft never made it to the paint shop and stayed in the standard F-15 grey scheme throughout their time with the squadron.

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Still wearing its Massachusetts ANG markings, which it did subsequently lose, this aircraft remained grey throughout its time with the 65th © Chris Wood –

According to Lt Col Wintill, “We’ve been able to provide training to thousands of Airmen through Red Flag, through the USAF Weapons School, future Weapons School graduates, as well as the Weapons School instructors that are teaching the course twice a year.

“It’ s been a great asset for the USAF Warfare Center to be able to have the F-15 Eagle here as an aggressor squadron for almost a decade now.”

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A pair of 65th AGRS F-15Cs over the Nellis ranges © Paul Filmer –

The drawdown started earlier in the year and saw 12 of the aircraft transferred to various Air National Guard units. However, it’s not quite the end of the aggressor F-15, as the other aircraft (six plus a spare) with nine pilots and around 100 maintenance personnel, will be transferred to the 64th AGRS, to augment its fleet of F-16s. This is only a temporary reprieve as these F-15s are due to be retired to AMARG in Tucson, Arizona, at the end of March 2015. This should at least mean that there will be aggressor F-15s taking part in the first two Red Flags of 2015, scheduled for February and March.

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The aggressor F-15 is in the twilight of its service © Chris Wood –

The retirement of the F-15s will leave the USAF with only one aircraft type in the aggressor role, the F-16C, which also happens to be the USAF’s most widely used aircraft. Meanwhile, the US Navy and Marine Corps are operating three types: the F-5, the F-16 and the F/A-18 Hornet. It will be interesting to see how, and if, the USAF plugs this capability gap. Will we see the Navy and Marine Corps participating more frequently in Red Flag, or civilian contractors operating former military fast jets? Time will tell.