American F-35s Fly First ‘Stealth Aggressor Training’ Missions — Preparing U.S. Pilots to Fight China’s J-20 Radar Evading Fighters

F-35A stealth fighters flying under the U.S. Air Force have flown their first missions simulating the capabilities of enemy ‘red’ aircraft with similar radar-evading capabilities in ‘red on blue’ exercises, also known as the Red Flag, at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. 

The F-35A entered service in the U.S. Air Force in 2015 and is currently not considered fit either to be approved for mass production or to enter high or medium intensity combat - having what is referred to as an initial operating capability. 

The fighter is currently the only manned post-fourth generation combat aircraft in production anywhere, but is now fielded in sufficient numbers that some units can be devoted to training pilots by simulating enemy capabilities. The fighters’ first exercises, Red Flag 21-3, concluded on August 6 after seven days and involved 15 U.S. Air Force different squadrons and more than 2,200 personnel. 

The need to train pilots to counter enemy stealth aircraft comes amid rising tensions with China, which fields the world's only non-American in-production stealth fighter deployed in full-sized squadrons.  

China’s J-20 stealth fighter entered service in March 2017, and in contrast to the much lighter single-engine F-35, it was designed as a twin-engine heavyweight fighter similar to America’s F-22 Raptor. The Chinese aircraft combines the benefits of a heavier airframe, including more armaments, larger sensors, greater maneuverability, and higher endurance, with high tech features which the F-22 notably lacks and which are in many cases otherwise seen only on the F-35 such as distributed aperture systems, modern helmet-mounted sights and up to date electronic warfare systems and avionics. 

The Chinese fighter has entered service in fast-growing numbers and its capabilities have been gradually improved - with a significantly enhanced J-20B variant entering serial production in 2020. 

The J-20 is expected to be the leading challenger which the F-35 is expected to simulate the performance of. Other possible stealth threats include China’s upcoming FC-31 stealth fighter, which is currently at an advanced prototype stage, as well as Iran’s Shahid series unmanned stealth bombers which have proven highly capable in combat, and Russia’s less stealthy but still formidable Su-57 next-generation fighter which is expected to begin entering service at a faster rate from 2024. Unlike the J-20, the Su-57 is being offered for export and could be fielded by a number of potential American adversaries.   

Commander of the U.S. Air Force’s 64th Aggressor Squadron based at Nellis Air Force Base, Lieutenant Colonel Chris Finkenstadt, stated regarding the latest exercises: “Based on our focus toward great-power competition, we need to make sure that those [blue air] guys are ready, and we do that by presenting the best possible atmosphere we can.” Air Force Colonel Scott Mills added regarding the role of F-35 ‘red’ aggressor units he commanded which 'blue' pilots would be training against: “At the end of the day, my job is not to give blue an easy day. My job is to give blue the absolute toughest day that I can. And the way for me to do that is to bring the F-35 into the fight. 

And the F-35 is going to make it exceptionally difficult for blue to achieve its objectives. They’re going to need to take every bit of capability they have, every bit of integration they can, to achieve their intent." An Air Force press release indicated that ‘red’ units won  “a lot of red air victories” in early simulated clashes - although this may have changed as ‘blue’ pilots adapted to and learned how to better counter adversaries with stealth and other fifth-generation capabilities. 

The U.S. has notably also deployed F-22s and older F-117s to simulate the capabilities of enemy stealth fighter units for training purposes in the past, although with the F-35 being produced on a scale close to an order of magnitude greater than either of them even if expected cuts to the program are implemented, it will likely form the core of aggressor training against stealth targets in future. 

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