September 6, 2017:
France recently sold 63 recently retired Mirage F1 fighters for use as adversary aircraft to train combat pilots. The aircraft were not sold to another country but to a commercial firm; ATAC (Airborne Tactical Advantage Company) that will refurbish at least half of the Mirages for combat training. ATAC is an American firm which provides flight and combat training mainly to the U.S. Navy and Marines but also other customers.
The use of contractors for military functions proliferated after the Cold War ended in 1991, especially in the United States and Europe. This was nothing new. The CIA, and later SOCOM (Special Operations Command) have long used contractor firms for logistics and air transport, especially in parts of Asia, South America and Africa where even civilian charter airline service was not available, or simply because the missions were classified.
For example the U.S. military uses the Phoenix Air Group to provide twin engine passenger and cargo aircraft to move American troops and equipment around Africa. This was nothing new for the Phoenix Air Group, which had long provided the U.S. Air Force with specially equipped Learjet 35/36 aircraft for electronic warfare training. The Learjets are twin engine aircraft fitted out with electronic warfare equipment and manned by technicians who can replicate a multitude of situations fighter and bomber pilots might encounter in combat. Phoenix also has dozens of twin engine cargo and passenger aircraft for charter, which AFRICOM hired rather than creating its own transport service.
AFRICOM (Africa Command) is similar in organization to other commands (Central, for the Middle East, and South, for Latin America, etc). AFRICOM coordinates all American military operations in Africa. Before AFRICOM was created in 2007 those operations were coordinated between two other commands (the one covering Europe and the one covering Latin America). The establishment of AFRICOM means more money for counter-terror operations in Africa, and more long range projects. But there was not much infrastructure in Africa and contractors had to be used.
ATAC is the largest commercial firm providing military flight training. This is a common function for basic flight training but ATAC expanded into training for combat pilots and that included “adversary training” that uses Western aircraft and veteran military pilots or accurately represent potential enemy warplanes. In the past the American A-4 and F-5 were popular for this task. But potential foes are using more capable fighters and the Mirage F1, which entered service in the mid-1970s and has been upgraded since.
France retired the last of its The Mirage F1s in 2014 but this aircraft is still used by some countries (Gabon, Iran, Libya and Morocco) and the manufacturer long provided refurbishment and upgrade services for the 720 built through 1992. The Mirage F1 is a 16 ton interceptor that can only carry two tons of weapons. With modern electronics and missiles it is still be a formidable air defense aircraft. ATAC got the Mirage F1s for a few hundred thousand dollars each and France will have them demilitarized (all classified or strictly military equipment removed) and ATAC will then have about half of them modified to act as various types of potential enemy fighters. The rest of the Mirage F1s will be used for spares which will enable ATAC to use some of the Mirage F1s for a decade or more,
By the late 1990s the use of retired combat personnel as "adversary pilots" became popular and ATAC soon expanded that that to supply adversary aircraft as well. In the 1990s civilian instructors were already being used for part of military flight training. But with so many pilots getting out, the navy and air force could no longer afford to provide military pilots to play the role of the bad guys in "Top Gun" type exercises. Former military pilots were hired to play the bad guys and were very good at it became many had done that sort of thing before they retired.