18th Aggressor Squadron – The Blue Foxes

18th Aggressor Squadron – The Blue Foxes

Eielson Air Force base in Alaska is home to one of only two United States Air Force (USAF) Aggressor Squadrons,
the 18th Aggressor Squadron – also known as The Blue Foxes.
History of The Blue Foxes
The 18th Aggressor Squadron can trace their history back to 1940, when they were activated as the Southwest Air District 18th Pursuit Squadron at Moffett Field in California. The squadron first moved to Alaska in February of 1942, when they were stationed at Elmendorf Air Force Base (AFB), flying the Curtiss P-36 Hawk and P-40 Warhawk.

In Alaska the squadron were engaged in combat during the Aleutian Campaign in 1942-43. The squadron remained in Alaska as part of the air defence forces until it was deactivated in August 1946.

Over the following years the squadron went through a number of reactivations and deactivations, which saw the squadron flying from various bases around the United States, flying a range of aircrafts, including the Northrop F-89D Scorpion, McDonnell F-101B Voodoo, Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II before getting the F-16C Fighting Falcon in 1991.

The squadron were assigned to Eielson AFB in Alaska on 1 January 1982, and have remained there since. On 1 October 2007, the then 18th Fighter Squadron were re-designated the 18th Aggressor Squadron, taking on the role of teaching fighter pilots how to best defeat the enemy in the air.

An arctic aggressor F-16 from the 18th taxies out from their hangars at Eielson AFB. The 18th have given way for the F-35, that will arrive at Eielson AFB wihtin a couple of years.
“We don’t have any ability to change the F-16, obviously, into a Su-35, but we try to modify the way we behave.”
Know, Teach, Replicate
As an aggressor squadron the Blue Foxes main mission is to replicate enemy aircraft during exercises. As the commander of the 18th Aggressor Squadron Lt. Col. Gregory “Pinball” Keller explained “We work to know the enemy, to both an academic and a flying standpoint, to teach and replicate. So our mission is to “Know, teach, replicate”. As the 18th aggressors we primarily focus on the PACAF (Pacific Air Force) area or responsibility, so obviously China, Russia those types of countries.”

The squadron works closely with the intelligence community to build up a large knowledge base about potential enemy aircrafts as Lt. Col. “Pinball” explained “Our goal is to work with the intelligence community to understand the enemy, and then we take that knowledge and teach that to all the units throughout PACAF, and then replicate those threats in the air.”

Once knowledge of the enemy have been obtained and analysed, the squadron have to teach “Blue Force” pilots what they can expect from the enemy when it comes to air-to-air combat. Although teaching air-to-air combat is the squadron’s primary mission, they can replicate air-to-ground threats as well. Lt. Col. “Pinball” continued, “We are primarily an air-to-air squadron, for replication purposes. So every once in awhile we will replicate air-to-ground capabilities, when required or requested too, but our primary mission is to replicate air-to-air.”

Teaching for the 18th means replicating the capabilities for the enemy. The squadron flies the F-16C/D Fighting Falcon and they use it to replicate enemy aircrafts. Lt. Col. “Pinball” elaborates, “We basically have to take our avionics and try to work out how that would collate to enemy type of capabilities. We don’t have any ability to change the F-16, obviously, into a Su-35, but we try to modify the way we behave in the air and way we employ to mimic, as close as we can what the enemy would do.”

Becoming an Aggressor
Back in 1972 when the first aggressor squadrons were formed, they were made up of a very selected group of instructor pilots. If you had more the 1500 hours flight time, you could try out to become an aggressor. Today the requirements are different as Lt. Col. “Pinball” explained, “Minimum requirement currently is for a 4-ship flight lead to become an aggressor, and that is handle through our normal assignment cycles for the most parts. Once you show up here as an aggressor it kind of depends what you show up as. If you show up as a 4-ship flight lead or do you show up as an IP (Instructor Pilot), or whatever the case may be, then we go from there.“

He continues “With a typical guy that shows up, it takes about three rides to become an aggressor wingman, that also involves several simulator and academic sessions, and then from there to progress from aggressor wingman to aggressor flight lead to eventually and aggressor instructor and finally a MiG-1, is going to be anywhere from 2 to potentially 10 or 15 more rides.”

“MiG-1” is what the “Red Air” calls the Mission Commander during large exercises. Becoming a “MiG-1” does not happen overnight as Lt. Col. “Pinball” explains “Typically what is going to happen is someone showing up as a Blue mission commander, he goes through our upgrade process which can be anywhere from 3-6-9 month depending on his experience level when he shows up. When he has finished the normal upgrade, we are going to asses if this guy ready to lead a Red Flag. Once again, depending on his experience level, that could be three month after he shows up, because he is a highly experienced instructor pilot, or it could be that he never achieves that level here at Eielson.”

The ‘bad guys’ walking towards their planes, getting ready for yet another sortie
as the ‘red force’.
Take off from their homebase – Eielson AFB.

Big exercises
Where the 18th Aggressor squadron really comes into its own are during the large-scale exercises where they participate as Red Air. A couple of times a year the Red Flag Alaska exercise is held at their home base at Eielson AFB, and bi-annually the large combined exercise Northern Edge takes place with aircrafts flying from both Eielson AFB and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (JBER), which is located outside Anchorage.

During these large exercises the Blue Foxes are flying at least twice daily acting as Red Air adversaries, trying to teach the Blue Forces how to complete their mission objectives when facing enemy opposition in the air. Doing this requires a lot of planning before the mission is flown as Lt. Col. “Pinball” explains: “For Northern Edge, or other large exercises, it is a little more planning intensive than our day to day operations, but a typical sortie is going to start the day prior just like for the Blue side, so we need to mission plan that sortie. We will start by meeting with White force intel, the people who are putting on the exercise, and find out ‘What is Blue’s objective?’. We are a support squadron to them, we are here to train Blue, so we need to know what they objectives are, so we can plan something accordingly, to try and teach them or test their objective.”

He continues: “Once we know what Blue’s objectives are, we are going back to work with Intel, to develop a game plan that is realistic and that will be challenging to them, so whether we are doing Defensive Counter Air or Strike on the day it depends on Blue’s objective.” The aggressor pilot responsible for planning the mission is the designated MiG-1, and he will typically spend 4-8 hours on the day before the mission, figuring out tactics, de-conflicting the airspace and other administrative tasks.

MiG-1 briefs
On the day of the mission, the aggressor MiG-1 starts the day by briefing all the participants in the exercise, Blue and Red, with a Red Air Coordination brief. During this briefing, the training rules for the exercise is briefed, as well as all the admin, which involves both Red and Blue air. This briefing usually last about three hours.

Following this is another hour of “Red” briefing, where the aggressor pilots brief their mission and the tactics that they will be employing during the mission. Then follows the actual mission lasting anywhere from one and half to two and half hours. Once the mission is over, the aggressor pilots will run the entire air-to-air portion of the exercise de-brief, which last about an hour and a half.

Once all the de-briefing is over, comes one of the most important aspects of the whole mission, Lt. Col. “Pinball” elaborates “Once that is all done, we will gather our lessons learned and provide those to Blue air and go ‘Hey, these are the area that we saw, that may have been weaknesses for you, or areas that we think you need to dig deeper into to get your lessons learned’. So we will provide that information to them, and then it is up to them to build upon that, and figure out what they did right and wrong.”

One of the latest aggressor schemes, the arctic splinter.
A ‘Lizard’ painted aggressor seen taxiing back from a sortie.

Not all alone
With the amount of work that goes into every single mission the 18th’s fly, it is vital that they replicate the threats as accurately as possible, and that they make sure the Blue force, learn as many lessons as possible from each mission.

During large-scale exercises the 18th F-16’s will often be supplemented with fighters from other non-aggressor units to bolster their numbers. These will typically be F-15’s or F-16’s from units already participating in the exercise. This is done because the 18th simply doesn’t have enough jets to meet the demand during exercise like Red Flag or Northern Edge.

Speaking about flying with these units Lt. Col. “Pinball” elaborated “Even in the Blue world, when you are just flying around, you will pretend to be Red at times, just because we have to do upgrade rides things like that, so everybody has a basic understanding of how to be Red and I think from the flying aspect those guys can show up and we just provide them a bit more information and they do just fine.”

He continues “We are very scripted with those guys, and how we want them to act, where we want them to be those types of things. The aggressors themselves typically will afford a little bit more freedom than they do, because they understand the tactics more and so those guys are great to support us base on the numbers that we can’t put up.”

Day-to-day tasks
When there isn’t a Red Flag Alaska or Northern Edge exercise taking place, the 18th’s are being kept busy. Units participating in the big exercises usually arrive well early and leave a couple of weeks after the exercise finishes, not only to take advantage of the huge air space available over the Alaska ranges, but also the unique capabilities of the Blue Foxes.

Lt. Col. “Pinball” explains “We call that ‘Distant Frontier’, as the name of that ‘exercise’, so we are basically a free-agent at that point for whatever unit is here training and whatever they would like to archive. Obviously there are only so many of us to go around, so we kinda have to share that between the units that are in town. So in the summer that is going to be our primary customers, the units that are here at Eielson. Throughout the rest of the year and even during the summer when we can fit it in, we train on a day-to-day basis with the 3rd Wing down at JBER, so we are the primary training aid for the Raptors.”

When not supporting units before and after Red Flag or Northern Edge exercises, the squadron is busy gathering new intel and honing their skills as aggressor pilots. From time to time they also bring in new equipment to test their usefulness as a tool in their advisory training. Recently the squadron started flying with the Lockheed AN/AAQ-33 Sniper pods.

The squadron is still trying to work out how best to use this new tool in the adversary role as Lt. Col. “Pinball” explains “We started using the Sniper pod back in the fall [of 2016] and we are just trying to employ that right now as an additional sensor and see how that goes. For us it is something new to try out and see how it works with us and our replication, but we are in the infancy stages right now.”
“We train on a day-to-day basis with the 3rd Wing down at JBER.”
The spring is almost there, with only a bit of ice left. The 18th flies year round.

The beautiful scenary at Eielson AFB, with the Alaskan Range as a perfect backdrop.
Working with the 64th
The only other dedicated aggressor squadron in the USAF is the 64th Aggressor Squadron based at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. Being such a small community, the two squadrons have to make sure that they are on the same page when it comes to how they teach the pilots they fly against.

Speaking about the relationship the 18th have with the 64th Lt. Col. “PinbalI” said “The 64th and the 18th get together annually and review how we do tactics, how we replicate the enemy. We publish an aggressor threat replication guide together, and make sure that we are both on the same page.

What we don’t want to see is one unit training against the 64th and then training against us, and go ‘Hey you guys replicate that threat completely different’. That would be contrary to what we are trying to achieve here.”

He elaborates “The one time we will get together is usually once a year, when we will travel down to Nellis AFB, and supplement them for Weapon School support, and during those three weeks we will get together and have conferences, and talk about ‘Hey are we doing the same thing you are doing?

Is our replication the same?’ And in that same vain, we will fly their pilots in our aircraft while we are at Nellis and we will occasionally fly in their aircraft. Just to make sure that we are doing the same thing, so we can observe each other’s ways of doing business.”

Once an aggressor – always an aggressor
Becoming an aggressor is part of the normal USAF assignment cycle, which means that after three years an aggressor pilot will be rotated out to other squadrons. They take with them a huge amount of knowledge, which they continue to use in their new units.

Lt. Col. “Pinball” explains “That guy [the pilot leaving the 18th] is not going to remain one of our aggressor subject experts, because we don’t have control over that guy anymore, but we definitely encourage our pilots that leave here, to go to their new unit and continue to teach the information that they have learned here and to try and propagate that out to the rest of the CAF (Combat Air Force).”

A bit thank you to Lt. Col. “Pinball” of the 18th Aggressor Squadron, USNR Lt. Mikel Weigel, and the 354th Fighter Wing for making this article possible.