Military Aviation

USAF Operational Test and Evaluation Center Commander is the first general officer to be certified as fifth-generation aggressor pilot on the F-35A Lightning II

Brig. Gen. Trey “Lou” Rawls, who commands the Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center, became the first general officer to be certified as a fifth-generation aggressor pilot.

Brig. Gen. Trey “Lou” Rawls joined the US Air Force (USAF) in 1993, starting a 30-year journey of flying more than 25 different kinds of aircraft. He recently became the first general officer to be certified as a fifth-generation aggressor pilot.

“I’m incredibly thankful for the opportunity to fly with the 65th Aggressors,” said Rawls, who commands the Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center. “I feel like I’ve come full circle in my flying career. Going from watching a movie and now stepping into a similar role is amazing. It’s an honor to be a part of helping to develop technological capabilities that keep us ahead of our adversaries. It’s also a real shot of adrenaline to get to be around our patriotic Airmen.”

As reported by Katherine C. Gandara, Public Affairs Advisor, Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center, in the article From spectator to aerial gladiator: AFOTEC Commander first general officer certified as fifth-generation aggressor pilot, Rawls was certified on the F-35A Lightning II aircraft with the 65th Aggressor Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base (AFB), Nev. The 65th AGRS’ directed mission is to know, teach and replicate fifth-generation air adversaries.

The aggressor program began in the 1970s to provide pilots the opportunity to train against a US aggressor force that replicated advanced and credible adversary tactics. Since then, the adversary capabilities have improved significantly and so did the need to replicate these threats.

Brig. Gen. Michael T. Rawls is the first general officer to be certified as a fifth-generation aggressor pilot.

The US Air Force aggressors were established in the wake of the service’s Project Red Baron study, which evaluated the air war over North Vietnam to determine why there had been such a dramatic change in the outcome of air-to-air engagements in the conflict. In the Korean War, pilots achieved a 10:1 kill ratio over North Korean and Chinese adversaries. Vietnam’s kill ratio dropped to 2.5:1.

Having the AFOTEC commander flying with the 65th AGRS provides a unique opportunity to determine how an Operational Test Agency can impact and improve warfighter training. Rawls believes this momentum will continue to grow.

“We have to ensure we’re keeping up with and surpassing our adversaries,” said Rawls. “In my role as an aggressor my job is to present our operators with the types of challenging problems they are likely to face from our adversaries. In my role as the AFOTEC Commander, my job is to ensure I provide material solutions and capabilities to address those same problems. It’s important to impress that if every acquisition dollar spent and every test event conducted isn’t resulting in more combat effectiveness and/or making Airmen’s lives better then we need to stop doing it.”

The 65th AGRS focuses on adversary threat replication by examining their doctrine, training, and capabilities. Using the F-35 as an aggressor allows pilots to train against low-observable threats similar to what adversaries are developing.

Brig. Gen. Michael Rawls, Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center commander, performs a pre-flight check on an F-35A Lightning II at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, Jan. 12, 2023. Gen. Rawls is committed to the continued modernization of the Air Force to ensure the United States remains at the forefront of air power.

“The challenge is that we’re no longer the only big kid on the block when it comes to technology,” said Rawls. “However, when it comes to training, readiness, and talent, we’re still king of the hill. AFOTEC has an important role in ensuring the U.S. remains at the world’s most dominant purveyor of air power. We do this by ensuring we only focus on problems that need solving and then relentlessly pursuing those solutions that enable us to continue to enjoy an unfair advantage.”

“Due to the growing threat posed by PRC [People’s Republic of China] fifth- and sixth-gen fighter development, we must use a portion of our daily fifth-generation aircraft today at Langley, Elmendorf, Hill, Eielson, and now Nellis, to replicate adversary fifth-generation capabilities,” said Gen. Mark Kelly commander Air Combat Command during the reactivation of the 65th AGRS. “Precisely because we have this credible threat, when we do replicate a fifth-gen adversary, it has to be done professionally. That’s the aggressors.”

The F-35 offers an adversary air platform that allows the 65th AGRS to tailor, through mission planning software, the jet to replicate the desired red air aircraft. These settings are determined the 65th AGRS with the help of the intelligence community.

The F-35s is employed into large Combat Air Forces exercises, US Air Force Weapons School missions, joint exercises, and operational test and evaluation events that are only conducted at Nellis AFB and the Nevada Test and Training Range.

Brig. Gen. Michael Rawls, Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center (AFOTEC) commander, prepares for takeoff in an F-35A Lightning II at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, Jan. 12, 2023. As a key leader of the test and evaluation community, Brig. Gen. Rawls coordinates directly with the offices of the Secretary of Defense and Department of the Air Force while executing realistic, objective and impartial operational testing and evaluation of Air Force, Space Force, coalition, and joint warfighting capabilities.

As already reported, the 65th AGRS reactivated on Jun. 9, 2022 with a directed mission to know, teach and replicate fifth-generation air adversaries at Nellis AFB.

In 2019, the then-Air Combat Command commander and Secretary of the Air Force approved the activation to improve training for fifth-generation fighter tactics development, advanced large force training and operational test support. The decision underwent compliance with the National Environmental and Policy Act and other regulatory and planning processes.

The 65th AGRS was previously active at Nellis from 2005 to 2014. During that time, the unit replicated tactics and techniques of potential adversaries with a fleet of F-15 Eagles. When they inactivated, the 64th AGRS continued the aggressor mission with F-16 Fighting Falcons.

For the first time during Red Flag-Nellis 21-3, the 57th Operations Group introduced dedicated F-35 aggressors to expand upon the F-16 Fighting Falcon aggressors assigned to the 64th AGRS.

Photo credit: Airman 1st Class Jordan McCoy and Airman First Class Trevor Bell / U.S. Air Force

This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. F-35A Lightning II 56th OG, 61st FS, LF/12-5050 / 2014
Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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