Aggressor aircraft in their distinctive colour schemes are a common sight at Nellis AFB and over the Nevada Test and Training Range. However, with the recent deactivation the 65th Aggressor Squadron consigning the Russian aircraft marked Eagles to the annals of history, and with the latest generation of aircraft becoming a more familiar sight, Jason Grant and Mark Forest take a look at how the remaining Aggressor Squadron at Nellis AFB – the 64th Aggressor Squadron flying older 4th generation aircraft – remain at the cutting edge as well as the history behind the United States Air Force Aggressor Squadrons at Nellis AFB.
Both the 64th and 65th Aggressor Squadrons can trace their lineage back to the Second World War. The squadrons were both established on the 20th November 1940 and followed a very similar path during the war and were initially assigned to providing air defence over the northeast of the United States. Both squadrons were reassigned to the U.S. Army Middle East in Egypt in 1942 as part of IX Fighter Command in support of the British Western Desert Campaign. After one more reassignment during 1943, both squadrons were transferred to the Twelfth Air Force flying interdiction missions over Italy and Corsica. After World War Two ended, both squadrons were inactivated on the 7th November 1945.
With the Cold War looming, both squadrons were reactivated on the 15th August 1946 as part of the Eleventh Air Force, the 64th were assigned to providing air defence over the Northern Pacific Ocean while the 65th fighter Squadron began training new P-51 Mustang pilots as part of the Air Defence Force in the northwest Pacific. Both squadrons became jet squadrons during 1948 flying F-80 Shooting Stars, and shortly afterwards were reassigned to the Alaskan Air Command, part of the 10th Air Division, flying the F-94 Starfire and then the F-89 Scorpion interceptor jet aircraft. Both Squadrons were re-designated the Fighter Interceptor Squadrons, providing fighter aircraft defence as part of the Alaskan Defence Force until the later 1950s. In 1957, the 64th was reassigned to provide air defence to the Pacific Northwest and updated to the F-102 Delta Dagger, the 65th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron was once again inactivated on the 8th January 1958.
The 64th carried on air defence duties for the Pacific Northwest until 1966 when the squadron was deployed to Clark Airbase to provide air defence to the northern Philippines. A year earlier, Operation Rolling Thunder had begun over Vietnam and the U.S. troop build up in the area was well underway. The 64th rotated flights from Clark Airbase to South Vietnam and Thailand tasked with providing air defence to the two countries. Following the capture of the USS Pueblo by North Korean forces on 23rd January 1968, the 64th were deployed to South Korea for 6 months during the heightened tension. The crew were held prisoner for 11 months in what was to become a major incident during the Cold War. As a side note, the USS Pueblo is still held by North Korea today, the only US ship held captive anywhere in the world. With the retirement of the F-102 Delta Dagger, the 64th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron was inactivated on the 15th December 1969.
On the 15th October 1969, the 65th was reactivated and re-designated the 65th Fighter Weapons’ Squadron. The squadron took over the 4536th Fighter Weapons’ Squadron based at Nellis AFB, with all personnel, facilities and aircraft coming under the reactivated squadron. The aircraft in use with the squadron was the single seat F-100D Super Sabre and the two seat training version F-100F Super Sabre with the tail code “WB”. Another period of uncertainty followed, becoming non-operational in 1970 and standing up again in 1972, this time with the A-7D Corsair II operating out of Luke AFB and Davis-Monthan AFB. Fighter weapons training continued for three years until June 1975 when the equipped A-7D was reassigned to the Air National Guard.
As a direct result of the dramatic drop in the U.S. Air Forces air-to-air kill ratio during the Vietnam War, “Project Red Baron” began at The USAF Tactical Weapons Centre at Nellis AFB – a series of studies to analyse the Vietnam War air-to-air engagements and the findings of the studies overhauled the training of the aircrews. Tactical Air Command devised an initiative known as “Readiness through Realism” which aimed to make training as realistic and intense as possible in a simulated environment as a mandatory part of a pilot’s mission qualification, this was to be known as Dissimilar Air Combat Training. During 1975, Tactical Air Command also proposed upgrading Air Force ranges to simulate enemy environments to improve air-to-ground training; Red Flag was to be the name of this new exercise.
The 64th and 65th Aggressor Squadrons
On the 15th October 1972, the 64th Fighter Interceptor Squadron was reactivated and re-designated the 64th Fighter Weapons Squadron as part of the 57th Fighter Wing, based at Nellis AFB. The squadron was now flying the T-38A Talon two-seat advanced training aircraft. With the loss of the A-7D Corsair II to the ANG, the 65th was re-equipped in October 1975 with the F-5E Tiger II. The F-5E had become available due to an undelivered order to the South Vietnamese Air Force, the aircraft has similar size and performance characteristics the Soviet built Mig-21 and was an ideal aircraft to train adversary tactics to United States Air Force flying units from bases around the world. During April 1976, the 64th Fighter Weapons Squadron was also upgraded to the F-5E. The F-5 pilots of both squadrons adopted enemy tactics; the aircraft were painted to simulate soviet style marked jet aircraft although they still carried the Nellis AFB yellow and black check tail stripe. Both the 64th and 65th were deployed throughout the United States and overseas to provide DACT training as well as adversary tactics to deployed USAF flying units. Both squadrons were re-designated the 64th and 65th Tactical Fighter Training Aggressor Squadron on 30th December 1981; 16 months later on the 1st April 1983, both squadrons were once again re-designated and became the 64th and 65th Aggressor Squadrons and 4 years later, the now familiar “WA” code appeared on the tail for the first time.
Towards the end of the decade, structural problems started to become a factor to the worn out airframes and the Soviets had significantly more advanced aircraft than the Migs they were flying 20 years earlier. On the 1st April 1988, the 64th began flying the F-16A Fighting Falcon borrowed from the 474th TFW at Nellis before new build F-16C and D models began to arrive during July 1989 but this was short lived, 4 months later the Berlin Wall came down as the Cold War thawed. Budget cuts followed – first the 65th were inactivated on the 7th April 1989 and then 64th on the 5th October 1990. The new build F-16s were transferred to the 414th Composite Training Squadron (CTS) which also came under the 57th Wing at Nellis AFB and were tasked with Red Flag exercises.
The world changed on September 11th 2001: budget cuts were reversed and funding was available to assist the military with the War on Terror. The 414th CTS was inactivated while the 64th Aggressor Squadron was reactivated on the 3rd October 2003 and the F-16s were transferred back to their original host. Two years later on the 15th September 2005, the 65th Aggressor Squadron was reactivated. The Squadron was allocated F-15C and F-15D models, painted in the now familiar Russian aircraft markings with tail code “WA”. For the next 9 years, the Aggressor Eagles in their distinctive colours would be a common sight over the skies of the Nevada Test and Training Range, working alongside their sister Squadron in their distinctive F-16s, but with operations ceasing overseas as the War on Terror ended, budgets were once again cut and the axe fell on the 65th on the 26th September 2014. Six F-15s and an air spare were transferred to the 64th to complement the twenty F-16s operated by the Squadron, but this was only a temporary measure. The end of March 2015 will see the F-15s reassigned to other units or retired to the Aircraft Boneyard at Davis-Monthan AFB.
Today and the future?
With newer and more advanced aircraft designs and cost cutting across the United States military, it’s difficult to know what the future holds for the United States Aggressor Squadrons. The advent of 5th generation stealth aircraft and all available funding now being invested in new aircraft technology, how much longer will the current aggressor aircraft be classed as a realistic threat and what can the pilots who fly the aircraft do to mitigate against the technological advantage the new jets bring to the fight?
Lt Col Kevin “Flash” Gordon, the 64th Aggressor Squadron Commander explained how the pilots from the squadron stay one step ahead of anything that flies against them.
The recent announcement that Red Flag 15-2 incorporated the virtual world by using simulators at the Distributed Mission Operations Centre at Kirtland AFB, it’s now becoming apparent that the exercise is growing once again. The simulators were used against the “Red Forces” by supporting attack operations and targeting to delay, disrupt and destroy the opposition. The odds are stacking up against the 64th with their current airframes. Will a budget in the future address this? At the recent Red Flag 15-1, eight F-15E Strike Eagles of the 4th FW from Seymour Johnson AFB supported the Red Forces, it remains to be seen if this will become a regular feature in upcoming Red Flag exercises.
AeroResource would like to thank Lt Col Kevin Gordon, Commanding Officer of 64th Aggressor and the Public Affairs Team at Nellis AFB, for taking the time to answer our questions and for giving us a personal insight into the regular duties of the 64th Aggressor Squadron.