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Top Aces A-4 enters RCAF adversary air training

By Chris Thatcher | July 3, 2024

Estimated reading time 9 minutes, 5 seconds.

Top Aces completed its first adversary air training mission with a Douglas A-4N Skyhawk advanced aggressor fighter at 4 Wing Cold Lake, Alta., in late June 2024.

The A-4, flying with a formation of the company’s Alpha Jets, supported air combat training for Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) CF-18 Hornet pilots over the Cold Lake air weapons range in northeastern Alberta.

The Skyhawk, featuring tail art commemorating the RCAF’s centennial and equipped with Top Aces’ advanced aggressor mission system (AAMS) and an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, was one of two A-4s that landed at 4 Wing in May, and the first of four that will eventually provide advanced red air training for the Air Force under the Contracted Airborne Training Services (CATS) program.

“We expect to see the next two aircraft delivered before the end of the year to get early to [full operational capability] ahead of schedule,” James Manning, a former CF-18 pilot and vice-president, Canada, for Top Aces, told Skies in a recent interview.

The introduction of the A-4 into the CATS contract coincides with completion of an upgrade program for the CF-18s, known as the Hornet Extension Project (HEP), which the RCAF is billing as a significant stepping stone to the CF-35A.

The first phase of HEP ensured the 40-year-old Hornets meet regulatory and interoperability requirements with automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B), new navigation systems, radios, and mission computers. The second phase enhanced the combat capability of 36 of the 94 CF-18s, most notably with a Raytheon APG-79(V)4 AESA radar.

Other enhancements include new transponder and interrogator to discern friendly from enemy aircraft, a new Link 16 tactical radio system, upgrades to the onboard mission computers and aircraft software, helmet night vision cueing devices, and new mission planning systems.

The RCAF declared initial operational capability (IOC) for the HEP II jets on June 24, after the first six Hornets completed the combat upgrade and were delivered to 3 Wing Bagotville, Que. Full operational capability of all 36 jets is expected by March 2026.

With AAMS and the AESA radar, the Skyhawk will deliver better training for those upgraded fighters, Manning explained. The A-4 can identify and target the Hornets from further away, and brings “very capable weapons engagement replication” that can emulate classified and unclassified threats.

“I think it’s a real game-changer, particularly for CF-18 pilots,” he said.

The training requirements for the Canadian Armed Forces under the CATS contract were defined in 2015, he noted, and did not include the “level of sophistication” now evident from the wide array of peer threats in the current global security environment. “But it did include language that allows it to evolve.”

In December, Top Aces and the Department of National Defence exercised an option to extend the contract by two years, through October 2029. CATS, a 10-year agreement signed in 2017, includes training services for the Royal Canadian Navy and the Canadian Army’s joint terminal attack controllers, but its primary focus is aggressor training for the RCAF fighter fleet as well as specialized training for electronic warfare officers and aerospace weapons controllers.

To date, the contract has been delivered with a fleet of Dornier Alpha Jets and a Bombardier Learjet 35A. While Top Aces has introduced the Lockheed Martin F-16A into its aggressor air portfolio for the U.S. Air Force Combat Air Forces Contracted Air Support program, which provides advanced adversary air training to F-35 Lightning II and F-22 Raptor pilots at Eglin Air Force Base (AFB) in Florida and Luke AFB in Arizona, Manning said the A-4, like the HEP II, represents a step toward the next generation of fighters and training for RCAF.

“The A-4 is between the [Alpha Jet and the F-16],” he said. “Transonic performance, less expensive than an F-16, but a better kinematic performer than the Alpha Jet. And most importantly, we have incorporated our [mission system].

“The AAMS is an open architecture system that is segregated from the core airworthiness of the aircraft—avionics, navigation, communications—it doesn’t impact any of that. It allows us a much more rapid tempo from the innovation of a new idea on a system to get it through certification testing and approval and into use.”

Providing a credible adversary in a simulated near-peer threat environment “is really about advanced sensors that are networked,” Manning added.

In addition to the AESA radars on both the A-4 and upgraded CF-18, the Skyhawks have datalinks to share not only positional information with other adversarial aircraft, “but also sensor information from those advanced sensors,” he said. “Whether it’s a networked AESA radar or a networked infrared search and tracking system, that is a much more current, credible threat for pilots to train against.”

The enhanced red air capability should also help the RCAF manages its human resource challenge as it transitions to the CF-35A. The fighter force is already struggling with a shortage of pilots and maintenance technicians for the Hornet fleet, and will be sending its first cadre of aircrew and maintainers for training on the CF-35 in early 2026.

“There is currently on the order of 2,000 hours a year where F-18s have to support the enemy air force [in training scenarios],” Manning observed. “Some of those missions require a radar-equipped adversary, which CATS did not have until we made this change. The introduction of the A-4 will [allow] Canada to fly less red air with their F-18s and shift those pilots and jets over to the blue air side where they are getting the force-generation training they need with their actual tactics, techniques and procedures in their actual missions.”

The CATS contract contains a further option that would extend it to 2031, but it’s more likely the RCAF will need to negotiate a new training program. While the A-4 now offers a more credible threat for the CF-18s, the RCAF will require an enemy force along the lines of the F-16 once the CF-35A reaches IOC in the 2029-2030 timeframe.

“I hope Canada is starting to talk about what they need as a training partner on the adversary side (for the CF-35),” said Manning. “I think it is quite likely it resembles [the capabilities of the F-16A],” which would offer a step up in kinematic performance and sensors.

“We intend to stay on the leading edge of what contracted adversary services can provide,” he added. “The F-16 is going to become our focus. It is an enormously capable platform in terms of speed, altitude and manoeuvrability. It has a low radar cross section. Over 3,000 have been produced, so there’s a pretty robust parts and supply chain available. We see it as the platform we will employ for the next couple decades.

“It is really about the mission systems we employ through AAMS.”

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