This "Private" Texan Air Force Helps Train America's

David Axe

Key point: The Pentagon wants real pilots and enemy planes to test itself against.

A private company in Texas has acquired scores of old French fighter jets.

With its 63 former French air force Dassault Mirage F.1s, Fort Worth-based Airborne Tactical Advantage Company possesses an air force that, in size, rivals that of many countries.

ATAC in 2017 announced it would buy the single-engine Mirages in order to expand its adversary operation, which simulates the "red air" enemy force in U.S. and allied war games.

Two years later ATAC announced that, with the help of parent company Textron, it has finished refurbishing and upgrading the supersonic Mirages.

"Textron retrofitted around 45 of the F.1s with modern avionics systems such as digital radio-frequency memory-jamming capabilities and upgraded radars," according to Jane's. "ATAC plans to use the Mirages for the U.S. Air Force adversary-air requirement, which requires almost 150 aircraft to fulfill the service's red-air training needs."

ATAC also operates former military Hawker Hunter, IAI F-21 Kfir and Aero Vodochody L-39ZA. Other red-air companies include Draken International, Tactical Air Support, Top Aces and Air USA.

Tactical Air Support recently procured 21 former-Jordanian F-5s, bringing its total fleet of F-5s to 26. Draken bought 12 ex-South African Cheetah fighters, boosting its own total fleet to 109 jets.

Until recently, the U.S. military mostly provided its own red air. The Air Force operated three "aggressor" squadrons flying F-15s and F-16s. But the flying branch in 2014 shuttered the F-15 unit as a cost-saving measure. Two squadrons -- one each in Nevada and Alaska -- continue to fly a few dozen F-16s in the adversary role.

The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps together operate several adversary squadrons flying early-model F-16s and F/A-18s plus 36 refurbished, former-Swiss F-5s. The Navy's 2020 budget request includes $40 million to acquire 22 ex-Swiss F-5s in order to maintain, over the long term, a 44-plane F-5 fleet.

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