Replicating the real world threat that American fighter pilots can encounter in an air-to-air engagement is the primary task of U.S. Navy adversary pilots, hence to realistically carry out their duty, they need the best aircraft to simulate the bandits during Dissimilar Air Combat Training (DACT) sorties.
Noteworthy the U.S. Navy adversary units for almost twenty years flew two aircraft to replicate the enemy fighters.
The first one has been the A-4 Skyhawk. This aircraft is possibly the best basic fighter maneuvering (BFM) trainer ever produced: ideal to represent old and slow fighters such as the MiG-17 as well as newer and more maneuverable soviet hardware such as the MiG-21, the A-4 was so agile that to win against it, the pilot had to perform properly his own BFM. The A-4 had an inferior weapon systems, but thanks to its maneuverability it was a handful in a visual engagement for both F-14 and F/A-18 pilots.
Used in the 1970s and in 1980s alongside the A-4 and still flown today by the adversary squadrons, the F-5 Tiger II remains the perfect aircraft to reproduce the MiG-23: fast and slick it is perfect to kill you unobserved. Even if it is not a great BFM fighter, the F-5 is reliable, easy to fly and ideal to simulate mass formations which could be met fighting against those countries that would mainly rely on their numerical superiority.
With the appearing of the new Soviet 4th generation fighters towards the end of the 1980s, a new adversary aircraft was conceived in the form of the F-16N Viper. Developed from the USAF front-line F-16 fighter, thanks to its modern avionics and its incredible maneuverability the F-16N has been the best all around adversary fighter. Moreover the F-16N great range allowed the instructors to face a first group of fighters leaving their Vipers with enough fuel to face a second fight. But the U.S. Navy decided to retire them in 1994 after cracks were discovered in several bulkheads of the aircraft as a result of the excessive g’s sustained by the fighters during many air engagements.
Nevertheless since the F-16 remains the most accurate simulator of the land based 4th generation fighters, in 2002 the U.S. Navy procured twelve embargoed ex-Pakistani F-16s (in the form of ten F-16As and two F-16Bs), to train U.S. Naval Aviators against non carrier based airplanes.
The F-14 Tomcat too was used to simulate Soviet 4th generation fighters. Used in the adversary role by both fleet squadrons (such as the Be-Devilers of VF-74) and Topgun, the F-14 proved to be an extremely effective aggressor, providing capabilities akin to those of the Su-27 and MiG-31.
The F/A-18 is the last adversary aircraft deployed by the U.S Navy to replicate the bandits. Like the Viper the Hornet and the Super Hornet are ideal to simulate modern fighters such as the MiG-29, the Su-27 and the Mirage 2000 as well as less capable aircraft such as the MiG-21 or the MiG-23 when the pilot limits the use of the radar or maneuverability. Nevertheless thanks to its tactics capability the F/A-18 gives the instructors a great deal of flexibility being able to cover the full range of potential threat aircraft. By contrast the type is not a dissimilar aircraft for the Navy since so many F/A-18s are in active service.
Anyway as one of Topgun’s main teaching points implies, it’s not the aircraft flown but the pilot driving it that makes the difference in a real air-to-air combat. In fact as several instructors explained in Rick Llinares & Chuck Lloyd book Adversary: America’s Aggressor Fighter Squadrons, the pilots must understand the weakness of their opponent, since a foe who doesn’t know how to use its MiG-29 or Su-27 it doesn’t represent a real threat, while a disciplined pilot in an older airplane can maximize the strengths of its fighter becoming a deadly adversary.
Adversary: America’s Aggressor Fighter Squadrons is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.
Top image: Bob Lawson
Photo credit: U.S. Navy
Artwork courtesy of AircraftProfilePrints.com
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