Inside The World's Only Privately Owned F-16s That Are Flying As Advanced Aggressors
Inside The World's Only Privately Owned F-16s That Are Flying As Advanced Aggressors
Top Aces has used major upgrades to turn some of the oldest F-16s around into the most potent private aggressors on the planet.
Last year, The War Zone
reported on the arrival of the first four
former Israeli Air Force F-16s
at aerial adversary company Top Aces’ facility in Mesa, Arizona. It was the culmination of a project
that started several years earlier to identify aircraft that could fulfill the training requirements for preparing next-generation U.S. fighter pilots flying aircraft like the 5th generation F-35 Lightning II
and F-22 Raptor
. Less than a year after the first plane was unloaded from an Antonov cargo plane, the company has taken some of the oldest F-16s around and successfully turned them into heavily upgraded adversary jets known as the Advanced Aggressor Fighter, or AAF.
You can read more about the origins of Top Aces' F-16 Advanced Aggressor Fighter program in this past War Zone feature.
The main component of the Top Aces AAF upgrade package is the Advanced Aggressor Mission System (AAMS), which incorporates an unspecified active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, Thales Visionix Gen III Scorpion helmet-mounted cueing system, and Link-16 datalink capability, all powered by an open architecture system. AAMS permits the rapid integration of new sensors and functions that a customer wishes to use to improve their air combat readiness, such as IRST and advanced jamming pods.
Kevin “Shaggy” Wilson is the Vice President of Business Development at Top Aces and a former F-16 pilot with over 2,000 hours in the Viper. Wilson is in charge of identifying, pursuing, and securing business for the company, both in the United States and potentially abroad.
In 2019, Top Aces was one of seven companies the US Air Force tapped for a huge $6.4 billion contract for Red Air and Close Air Support training throughout several locations in the United States. Wilson told The War Zone “it’s been quite the journey over the last year since we first got the F-16s in Mesa. It has been 355 days since the aircraft landed on January 28, 2021, till the 18th of January 2022 when we flew a fully operational upgraded F-16 with a brand new AESA radar, Scorpion helmet, fully integrated Link-16, and a multifunction display with our own operational flight program that we developed from scratch that is optimized for the adversary air role. We are very proud of the team that made it happen.” The feat is all the more impressive considering it took some competitors over two years to get their aircraft flying without any major upgrades like an AAMS.
The aircraft being upgraded are 1979 A/B model block 10 F-16s that were exported to Israel in 1980. Most of the aircraft flew in active service until about 2015 when they were retired and kept in preservation status. The Israeli Air Force updated the aircraft throughout their time in service, but because of U.S. Department of State restrictions on what Top Aces was able to re-import, Israel was forced to remove many of the upgrades that were done.
So in reality, Top Aces received a 1979 F-16 with very minor modifications for flight safety, such as an upgraded inertial navigation unit that enables proper air navigation. The only visible difference from the original configuration is the addition of several chaff and flare dispensers to the F-16A/B’s svelte airframe.
The AAMS is not new to Top Aces aircraft. The company has already flown the system on its A-4 Skyhawks for over a year, therefore mitigating risk when incorporating it into the Viper. The AAMS-equipped A-4s are used to fly against the German Air Force Typhoons. You can read more about these advanced Skyhawks and their mission in this past War Zone article
. Leveraging this risk reduction, Top Aces has been flying the system as designed in the F-16 over the last few weeks with spectacular results.
It is no secret that the U.S. military is in desperate need of quality adversary aircraft to go up against advanced aircraft like the F-22 and F-35, as well as upgraded 4th generation types. Wilson stated “the entire reasoning behind developing the AAMS was to challenge advanced 4th generation aircraft and 5th generation platforms. There are very few contract adversary aircraft currently out there that can challenge those platforms because of how advanced those U.S. platforms are. By adding AESA to a very maneuverable high performance aircraft, it provides a distinct challenge to the blue forces that they are not used to dealing with. It enables them to evaluate and update their tactics to make sure they can meet the near-peer and peer threat in various theaters."
Unlike USAF F-16s, which often fly with advanced targeting pods and large external fuel tanks, Top Aces F-16s are currently flown clean with no external pods or tanks. The F-16 was originally envisioned as a lightweight daytime fighter. Wilson stated “flying the F-16 clean is flying it like it was designed. It is a fighter pilot’s aircraft and it’s incredibly rewarding, providing a lower radar cross-section and it is difficult to see head-on at the merge.” In a clean configuration, the F-16 can get an hour and a half airborne time for its customers.
Going forward as Top Aces vies to win more adversary contracts, the advantage of the design of the AAMS is its compatibility with open system architecture and standards that the U.S. Department of Defense is employing. Top Aces does not want to be vendor-locked for a particular pod or system so it is very easy for its F-16s to swap or add systems as time goes on and the threat changes. Wilson added that “threat replication in training has to progress at a commensurate level in order to maintain our edge. So whatever the customer is seeing as a need, whether it be advanced electronic attack or advanced infrared search and track systems or a radar system, we are able to very quickly adapt the system to integrate the changes needed into our system and train our blue forces against it before it becomes a serious threat."
Top Aces has used Coherent Technical Services Incorporated located outside of the U.S. Navy's Naval Air Station (NAS) Patuxent River in Maryland as a technology partner which has enabled it to field the AAMS so quickly. CTSI has a lot of experience with the Navy test world and has a working AAF F-16 simulator at its facility.
The number of F-16s that receive the AAMS upgrade has yet to be determined and will largely be customer-driven. Wilson stated “we believe the customer will value what we are bringing to the adversary community with this upgraded F-16 so we are fully prepared with our partners like Elbit M7 Aerospace in San Antonio to produce these upgraded aircraft at a fairly high rate as long as the customer is ready to support it. As of right now, we are currently planning to have a dozen or so of the aircraft ready by the end of the year to begin to support advanced 4th and 5th gen training wherever it is needed."
A big part of the AAF is the Thales Visionix Gen III Scorpion helmet-mounted display (HMD). The Scorpion is one of the most capable HMDs in the world and used by a wide variety of aircraft, including A-10s, F-16s, AC-130s, and the F-5s from competitor Tactical Air Support, Inc. It has the ability to record HD video right onto the jet's computer, which then can be shown at a debriefing.
The helmet provides a huge advantage when trying to provide quality advanced aggressor training to 5th generation assets including the ability to replicate high off-boresight missiles like the Russian R-73/74. The aircraft’s multi-function display, while used for radar targeting and situational awareness, is a great user-friendly system, but when incorporated with the helmet, it allows the pilot to keep their head up and out of the cockpit. This enhanced situational awareness is gained by Scorpion’s ability to present contact information — friendly and enemy — in an augmented reality manner, as well as weapons cueing and targeting information. The monocle also provides the current safety of flight information in terms of altitude, airspeed and G load. Wilson stated that “having the ability to keep our head out of the cockpit is critical to being a proper and effective threat replication to train the blue forces the way they need to be trained."
Todd ‘Heat’ Seger (retired USAF Colonel) was the pilot chosen to test fly the AAMS in part because of his work incorporating the Scorpion helmet into the Air National Guard’s F-16s. He sat down with The War Zone to discuss what it’s like flying the AAMS F-16.
Seger served as a developmental test pilot in both active duty and in the reserves. He came to Top Aces with just under 4,000 hours in the F-16 and several combat tours under his belt. Seger spent time as a pilot in the 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base. This squadron performs operational testing of all fighter aircraft and munitions entering and in operational use by Air Combat Command. After that tour, he was offered a chance to fly the F-22, but turned it down because of his affection for the Viper.
While at Nellis, Seger switched to the Air Force reserves and became an instructor pilot in the 16th Weapons Squadron. In 2007, Seger went to Tucson where he worked at the Air National Guard/Air Force Reserve Test Center (AATC). There he became the vice commander before retiring in 2018. AATC thrives on the mantra “80 percent the solution at 20 percent the cost,” which is music to the ears of a CEO of an adversary air support company.
Seger told The War Zone “essentially what we've taken is a legacy airplane and we've pimped it. So it's pimp my airplane. The F-16 with an AESA in the nose gives us a very high-quality ability to actively detect the blue air side of the equation and give them a run for their money because we have very good detection capability against low RCS targets like the F-22 and F-35.” AESA radars offer a massive leap in capabilities over mechanically scanned array radars especially in terms of detection range, fidelity, beam agility, and reliability.
Seger added “I can use the AESA radar in three different modes. I can target anybody from right off my nose down to 40-50 miles just with a visual indication on my eyeball [using the Scorpion HMD], which is called a dynamic aiming cue. It's very lethal and it provides a very formidable challenge because I can now take and point any active or passive sensor, through something I see with the best sensor on the airplane, which is my pilot eyeballs, to be honest with you. So I've got a full spectrum of longwave IRST which is a different spectrum than radar energy, which is X Band, which is my AESA radar. And then I got my visual spectrum of my eyeballs all working together to provide a formidable adversary to the Air Force and the Navy.”
“The Scorpion Helmet mounted cueing system allows us to essentially use the airplane like it was designed, so we don't have to spend too much time looking down, and we can exploit blue air weaknesses like things like being in the contrails and we can point high off bore-sight missiles. We can also take the AESA radar detects right and we see a location in our helmet-mounted cueing system, we can transition from Beyond Visual Range to within visual range very, very well, we can fight within visual range very, very well. I mean, essentially, you just provide a very formidable adversary that's flexible to their needs.”
The AAMS software brings it all together onto one display that the pilot can see either in his multifunction display or in his eyepiece. Seger said “I see basically a replication of all my sensor targets on both displays. And I get essentially a software package called a FAAC Weapons Employment Zone [WEZ] and essentially it allows me to, without pilot effort, to put in any bad guy missile type, whether Chinese or Russian missile type, and replicate it to provide blue forces shot data.”
“So I go into my aircraft with a planned mission on a little USB stick, I plug it into my mission computer with all those numbers, you know, for what the missiles that I'm going to replicate today. I go up, I fly my mission system that I just described, and it's all recorded digitally on a solid state digital recorder. And then I come back to the debrief with a series of threat replicable missile parameters that I brought to the fight. And it's all printed out for me and I take it to the debrief, and I make the pilots better by showing them how I was able to exploit potentially holes in their armor.”
The addition of Link-16 gives the aircraft the ability to exchange its tactical picture with other aircraft in near-real-time. Seger said “Link 16 basically brings the digital world so I get all the targets that I produce, all the targets of my wingman produces, I get them all and I can target them all with a that FAAC WEZ and provide you know, shot data on any single target that myself or my team collects. But I can also tap into what's called the air surveillance network. So essentially, there are other passive detectors that are either airborne or on the ground where I have access to how they detect things. So in other words, Raptors and F-35s are visible in certain spectrums, you know, and not to get classified, but I essentially get cueing from passive sensors through the Link 16. And so, therefore, I get not only high situational awareness of the blue forces in front of me I also have the ability to have global situational awareness on the entire fight so that I'm more safe.”
An image showing the Advanced Aggressor Fighter F-16's multi-function display capability screen. It provides high-situational awareness displaying information from the radar and other onboard sensors as well as from other platforms via data-link. Tracks are also projected in the pilot's Scorpion helmet-mounted display system. It also shows weapons engagement envelopes for threat profile simulation.
Speaking about flying the F-16 and its performance as an adversary aircraft, Seger said “it's what they [the USAF] need, because an F-16 goes from 100 feet to 50,000 feet in a short period of time. It's a nine-G airplane that goes Mach 2.05, So it has the kinematic ability to challenge an F-35 or an F-22. It has good legs, both with internal and external fuel. And the ability to adapt any sort of capability or any sort of sensor on the airplane is second to none because Top aces owns the OFP. So they own the operational flight parameter that makes this thing tick. And that's something nobody else has.”
During our visit, I was able to see the first 4-ship F-16 mission for Top Aces where 3 F-16s went up against the AAF F-16, which was flown by Seger. He told us “I was able to fight one V three, and be very effective at not only detecting all the groups that were coming at me, but also to do sorts within groups of multiple contacts within multiple groups. And I was able to have high situational awareness going into the merge both visually, and with my mission system. And I was also able to employ a series of missiles, replicating the threat against them. I was probably almost as good as a blue fighter could be and so all we need to do is handcuff it appropriately to replicate hopefully what the real threat is, which isn't as good as the blue threat. But it is as capable as a blue threat airplane right now.”
From a man that has flown 10 different versions of the F-16, Wilson told us “the conventional wisdom in the F-16 community (especially those that flew the original Block 10/15s and more recent versions) is that Block 10/15 Vipers are the best “BFM machines'' (dogfighting) ever built. The lighter nose (structurally) combined with the original analog FLCS (fight control system) has always been recognized as superior in pitch onset rate to any subsequent F-16.
Also, the lighter overall aircraft structure combined with the thrust from the PW-220E engine with full DEEC (Digital Electronic Engine Controls) means the Block 10/15 has the best thrust-to-weight ratio of all the F-16s. Our big A models are the sweetest.”
Top Aces sees a bright future ahead and is very confident in the aircraft they have picked. A large advantage for Top Aces going forward is that they are the only adversary company currently cleared to take on fuel from USAF tankers like the KC-10 and KC-135. This is important as the need continues to rise for adversary support for Pacific and European commanders.
Another advantage is with so many companies in the United States still supporting USAF F-16 operations, parts are often readily available. Another benefit that the F-16 brings is a large group of people that have a great amount of experience maintaining the airplane. The maintainer cadre that Top Aces has put together has over 350 years of F-16 experience so as to continue an enviable safety record with over 95,000 hours of accident-free flying. Maintaining jets that are over 40 years old is no easy task especially after having to put them back together.
This week the company is expected to receive another 4 aircraft from Israel bringing the total to 12 aircraft at its F-16 Center of Excellence. That number will grow to over 20 in the next several months, making it the largest private 4th generation-capable adversary force on earth, at least for now.
Contact the editor: Tyler@thedrive.com