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As the Canadian federal government negotiates with its U.S. counterpart for the sale of the Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jet to replace the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) CF-188 Hornet, one Canadian company is preparing for how best to deliver aggressor air training for a fighter far more advanced than the venerable Hornet.
Montreal-based Top Aces provides the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) with “red air” and other training under a program called Contracted Airborne Training Services (CATS). The wide-ranging program includes simulating hostile threats such as fighter bombers, air-to-ship missiles, and providing sea-skimming target towing for the Royal Canadian Navy; close air support training for the Canadian Army’s joint terminal attack controllers (JTACs); validation of the North Warning System early-warning radios and radars with Arctic flights to test their quality and function; and aggressor training for the RCAF fighter fleet as well as niche training for electronic warfare officers and aerospace weapons controllers.
The CAF was an early adopter of privately contracted aggressor air services in the early 2000s to preserve older airframes from the additional wear and tear of flying “enemy” missions in training exercises. Top Aces quickly became one of the industry’s leading innovators, employing fleets such as Dornier Alpha Jets, Douglas A-4 Skyhawks, and a Bombardier Learjet 35A to meet the CAF’s requirements.
The initial contract began as an interim arrangement, but was made permanent in 2017 with a 10-year deal worth about US$480 million — which includes options to extend the service to 2031 and the value to as much as US$1.4 billion.
The success of the Canadian program soon generated opportunities for Top Aces in Australia, Germany, and elsewhere in Europe, as well as with the U.S. Air Force. And the market is expected to grow as more countries assess future adversary air needs as they acquire upgraded fourth and new fifth-generation combat fleets.
In recent months, however, the United States Air Force (USAF) has raised questions about the ability of third-generation fighters to realistically replicate the threats it expects to face in future combat. Speaking before the Senate Armed Services Committee in May, LGen David Nahom, deputy chief of staff for Air Combat Command (ACC) plans and programs, said at “the high-end training environment” — such as F-35 training at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, where the USAF operates an elite weapons school and conducts complex Red Flag exercises — older generation contracted aircraft are not enough.
“What they provide is not giving us what we need,” said Nahom.
ACC recently let it be known that it will not renew some adversary air (ADAIR) contracts at Nellis. In June, the USAF reactivated the 65th Aggressor Squadron, flying camouflaged F-35s, to provide a high-end enemy force.
That decision is not expected to impact the CATS contract as Canada negotiates for 88 F-35A aircraft. The program was designed from the outset to adapt as new technology is introduced, explained Didier Toussaint, Top Aces’ chief operating officer and a former RCAF fighter pilot.
Older generation aircraft without the new technology won’t “provide adequate training,” he acknowledged. But “Canada was forward looking” with the design of CATS to ensure the program could adapt to the capabilities of a more advanced fighter.
In addition, Top Aces has invested significantly in an Advanced Aggressor Mission System (AAMS) to replicate a broad range of threats from older airframes, and added a fleet of 29 F-16 A/B fighters from Israel, based in Mesa, Arizona, to provide a more dynamic fourth-generation counter to the F-35.
The AAMS will allow “for the simulation of advanced fighters using cost-effective aircraft of a lower generation,” he suggested. The open architecture of the AAMS “allows us to tailor capabilities to different customers and their platforms. Advanced Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, Link 16 tactical datalinks, infrared search, electronic warfare… all of this has been tested and implemented.”
The A-4s operating in Germany and the F-16s — known as the Advanced Aggressor Fighter and now supporting USAF training (the first was fielded this year) – “are configured with those advanced technologies,” said Toussaint. “That’s the difference.”
While F-35 combat training involves more time in a simulator than older generation fighters, “simulation does not cover the whole training spectrum that is needed to prepare fighter pilots in those platforms to face the threats they [could] face,” Toussaint noted. So, demand remains high for outsourced live adversary air — “but with the right capabilities, in the right airplanes, with the experience that matters.”
The RCAF “can’t afford to do red air anymore with their F-18,” he said. “They don’t have enough people and won’t in the future. I think we have an important role to play in that equation to help Canada transition successfully to the F-35.”
Does that mean F-16s from Arizona could be headed north after 2025 when the first F-35s are expected? Or will Top Aces need to expand its fleet and base some in Canada? Toussaint admitted both are options. “We would love to have the F-16 flying in Canada in a few years. But there are other steps we are proposing to Canada for [now]. . . . [It will] likely be with an A-4, to be candid. And perhaps with an F-16 in the medium term.”
Top Aces recently surpassed 100,000 hours of accident-free adversary air and close air support training in North America, Europe, and Australia. “That milestone is significant,” said Toussaint. “It is by far the most hours in the industry, and the best safety record.”
He credited the CATS program for not only being “visionary” in kickstarting the outsourcing of aggressor training, but also for the airworthiness standards and responsibilities it established at the outset. “It was a springboard for us to continue doing this service in Canada, for the recompete that occurred in 2017, and then worldwide. In our operation, this is the model that we use. . . . CATS was the start of it all.”
The company is now eying additional markets. Top Aces currently provides JTAC training to the Canadian Army, but in March it acquired Blue Air Training of Las Vegas — specialists in close air support training.
“They have an offering with a turboprop, which we didn’t have, so we saw a fit,” said Toussaint. “By combining Blue Air Training with Top Aces, we now are the most experienced and largest army and special forces trainer in JTAC.”
That could mean more work with the Canadian Army and Special Operations Forces “to give them better training that covers more of their needs than today,” he said. “Our strategy with Blue Air is still being refined. . . . We are quite excited about the next steps but still figuring out the transition and how we will address the market in Canada and worldwide.”
But the greater opportunities are likely to be found with countries upgrading their fighter fleets, either with more advanced fourth-generation aircraft or the F-35, such as Finland and Germany.
“We are already operating in Europe with [the AAMS] technology,” said Toussaint. “Because we have the tech, the aircraft, the experience, and the airworthiness, it allows us to expand and propose our services today and grow with the many F-35 nations in Europe. They will have a training gap and we are there to provide at least part of it.”