U.S. Air Force Has Doubled its Aggressor Training Units in Just 11 Months: New Squadrons to Simulate Enemy Air Operations

The U.S. Air Force has converted one of its reserve fighter squadrons into a new aggressor unit, the 706th Aggressor Squadron, which has been equipped with F-16 fourth generation combat aircraft. A ceremony marking the unit’s formation was held at the Air Force Reserve’s 926th Wing at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, with the unit officially formed on May 14. Creation of a new aggressor unit comes as training to simulate the capabilities of the air forces of major state adversaries has received growing investment. The 706th will be the third aggressor unit based at the facility alongside the 64th and 65th aggressor squadron. The new unit is the fourth aggressor unit in the Air Force, with the 18th Aggressor Squadron based at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska. The Air Force announced regarding the formation of the unit that “as Nellis’ third aggressor squadron, the 706th’s mission focuses on continuing to know, teach, and replicate fourth-generation aggressor air adversaries,” subsequently adding hat “the shift in mission set [for the 706th] allows the 64th and 65th AGRS [Aggressor Squadrons] to pursue the next generation of air defence and Nellis’ endeavour towards becoming the 5th Generation Center of Excellence.”

The 706th Aggressor Squadron’s suitability to simulate the capabilities of mid and high level adversaries remains questionable due to the age of the fighters with which it has been equipped – namely F-16 Block 30s from the Cold War era which have relatively basic fourth generation capabilities. These aircraft are very significantly less capable than the latest F-16 Block 70/72 fighters produced from 2022 with ‘4 generation’ capabilities, let alone fifth generation fighters like the F-35 or Chinese J-20. The U.S. Air Force has not acquired F-16 for 18 years, with the last acquisition made in 2005, and the service has continued to show no interest even in the latest variants indicating the limitations imposed by the design’s age. Older F-16s lack advanced network centric warfare capabilities and still use mechanically scanned radars which are today considered obsolete, and which in an era where stealth technologies are increasingly dominant and electronically scanned radars have been deployed for decades leaves their ability to simulate any serious challenger in question. F-16s have been popular for aggressor units despite their age due to their very low acquisition and operational costs and ease of maintenance, and are deployed by both the Air Force and the Navy for this purpose as well as by private firms such as Draken and Top Aces which provide aggressor training services. 

11 months before the formation of the 706th Squadron, the Air Force reactivated its 65th Aggressor Squadron in June 2022 and equipped it with fifth generation F-35s. According to multiple reports these were delivered primarily due to the perceived threat posed by Chinese fifth generation fighters namely the J-20 and upcoming FC-31. The F-35 and J-20 are the only post fourth generation fighters in production today, aside from the Russian Su-57 which has less advanced stealth capabilities and has yet to be fielded at squadron level strength. Other than the J-10C, a Chinese ‘4+ generation’ fighter which integrates many fifth generation technologies, the F-35 and J-20 are in production on a larger scale than any other fighters in the world today. Demand for the F-35 in frontline units, years long delays to production, and various ongoing production related issues, has meant that deliveries of more F-35s to aggressor units may not be possible for the foreseeable future. Indeed, those F-35s delivered to the 65th Aggressor Squadron having been problematic early production models which were never expected to be ready for actual combat and could thus be spared for training. An alternative option raised in June 2020 to provide fifth generation aggressor training by Head of Air Combat Command Air Force General Mike Holmes was that older F-22s could be allocated to aggressor units, although the extreme operational costs of these aircraft even compared to F-35s, the obsolescence of their avionics, and the Air Force’s push to retire the aircraft early, means formation of an F-22 aggressor unit also remains unlikely.