Falcon Strike 2022 is the European version of the American Red Flag “dissimilar training” exercises. This year the emphasis was on what fifth-generation aircraft like the F-35 could do against an adversary with advanced aircraft and SAMs (Surface to Air Missiles) defending their ground forces. This scenario appears unlikely given what happened to Russia in Ukraine and the impact of sanctions on Russian military production. Yet Russia has formed its first Su-57 stealth fighter squadron, and last year Russian aircraft manufacturer Sukhoi displayed a mockup of its new single-engine Su-75 Checkmate stealth fighter, which is apparently the Russian answer to the similar American F-35.
The Su-75 is being developed by the same team that designed the Su-57, the Russian answer to the American F-22. The Su-57 proved to be a failure. The Su-75 appears to be a desperate move to salvage something from all the money spent on developing the Su-57. The Su-75 won’t make its first flight until 2024 and might enter production before the end of the decade. There will be one and two seat versions. The two-seater will be used as a trainer or an electronic warfare aircraft. There were also plans for an unmanned version, without a cockpit, and thus cheaper to build. Russia already has the S-70, a UCAV (unmanned combat aircraft) in production. This stealthy, delta wing aircraft has already been tested accompanying manned fighters and production is underway. Because of the Ukraine fiasco, it is unlikely that the Su-75 will find any export customers and the Russian air force may not be willing to buy even one.
Falcon Strike is also recognizing the growing number of F-35s in European air forces. Currently there are 140 but by 2035 there will be over 600 European F-35s. The fighting in Ukraine and positive reviews from current European F-35 pilots led to more European nations ordering F-35s. Germany, for example, recently ordered 35.
Europeans also noted that with the appearance of the F-35 for the American air force and navy, the American F-35 pilots faced a training problem, one they have encountered before. The first time was during the 1960s when the air force and navy aviation suffered unexpectedly high combat losses because their aircraft and pilots were not prepared for the lower tech Russian aircraft used against them over Vietnam. The initial solution was for fighters to be again equipped with cannon because the new air-to-air missiles were not yet reliable enough to replace the “old fashioned” cannon. This did not change the situation a lot and that led to a solution which did work – use of your own aircraft for "aggressor (or dissimilar) training." This began in 1969 when the U.S. Navy established the original "Top Gun" fighter pilot school. That was followed by the similar air force Red Flag program. As the years went by the air force and navy acquired more Russian warplanes to use for training in addition to using Western fighters equipped and flown in the same manner as the potential opposition.
In the 21st century the 1960s solution did not work as well. This is becoming a serious problem as more air force and navy pilots prepare to switch from F-18s, F-15s and F-16s to F-35s. These transition pilots found that Top Gun/Red Flag type training needed much better adversary aircraft because of potential foes. China and Russia had improved their tech considerably since the F-22 arrived and dissimilar training had to be changed so the military could use adversary aircraft equipped with the advanced tech (like AESA radars and more complex electronics in general). One aspect of this problem is that the military uses commercial firms to supply aircraft and retired (and very experienced) military pilots to fly the dissimilar aircraft. At the time there were laws prohibiting the commercial firms from obtaining the high-tech fighters required to adequately challenge F-35 and F-22 pilots. Using the more advanced dissimilar aircraft is also more expensive and the senior air force and navy leadership now understand that this is an essential cost. But there is general agreement that these changes are needed. Apparently Israeli experience with their F-35s reinforced the call for more realistic dissimilar training opposition.
One training solution was to use the retired F-117 stealth aircraft for dissimilar training. The F-117 was based on 1970s technology and entered service in 1983. It was actually a 24-ton light bomber. It had two internal bomb bays, and typically carried two laser guided bombs. The F-117 was not a jet fighter, and was not as stealthy as the F-22. Only 59 were built and, taking inflation into account, cost about as much as an F-22. The last F-117s were retired in 2008 but by 2017 some had quietly come out of retirement to provide a realistic enemy stealth aircraft for dissimilar training. .
Training against enemy stealth aircraft is a relatively recent problem. The F-22 began development in the late 1980s, first flew in 1997, and entered service in 2005. The F-22 has performance that was (and still is) far superior to that of any other aircraft in service. The combination of speed, advanced electronics, and stealth technology has created such a decisive advantage that F-22s are often matched up against as many as six F-15s to ensure their pilots face a challenge during training. So why is the lower-performance F-35 causing such a commotion? The problem is that because of high cost only 187 F-22s were built. But more than 20 times as many F-35s are entering service, many of them with allied air forces. For the dissimilar training to work, the F-35 has to face aircraft that can realistically mimic what the latest Russian and Chinese fighters are capable of.
What made the Top Gun operation different was that previously training emphasized how the enemy aircraft and pilots operated. This was called "dissimilar training". In the past, American pilots practiced against American pilots, with everyone flying American aircraft and using American tactics. It worked in World War II, because the enemy pilots were not getting a lot of practice and were using similar aircraft and tactics anyway. Most importantly, there was a lot of aerial combat going on, providing ample opportunity for on-the-job training. Not so in Vietnam, where the quite different Russian trained North Vietnamese were giving U.S. pilots an awful time. The four-week Top Gun program solved the problem. The air force followed shortly with its Red Flag school. In the early 1980s, the Russians established a dissimilar air combat school, and the Chinese followed in 1987.
Since the 1970s the two American training programs have developed differently, and the entire concept of "dissimilar training" has changed. The navy kept Top Gun as a program to hone fighter pilot's combat skills. The air force made their Red Flag program more elaborate, bringing in the many different types of aircraft involved in combat missions (especially electronic warfare). But after the Cold War ended, it became increasingly obvious that none of our potential enemies was providing their fighter pilots with much training at all. In other words, the dissimilar training for U.S. fighter pilots was not as crucial as it had been during the Cold War. Actually, it had been noted that flying skills of Soviet pilots were declining in the 1980s, as economic problems in the Soviet Union caused cuts in flying time. During that period American pilots were actually increasing their flying time. Moreover, U.S. flight simulators were getting better. American pilots were finding that even the consumer grade PC-based combat flight simulators had some training value.
Because the Cold War was over and no similar foe had appeared, in the late the 1990s Top Gun and Red Flag found their budgets cut. But the programs remain, as does the memory of why they were set up in the first place. By 2017 it was realized that China was continuing to improve its combat aviation and giving its fighter pilots more flying time. Chinese politicians maintain a bellicose attitude towards the U.S. and it is accepted that there is a need to increase American Top Gun training. Because of the new Chinese "dissimilar training" effort, the U.S. Top Gun and Red Flag schools were restored to their former prominence, sort of. The Chinese move is certainly a very meaningful one, as it shows that they are serious about preparing their pilots to fight and defeat Taiwanese and American pilots. Dissimilar training is how that is done.
Falcon Strike responded to the growing number of European NATO air forces buying a lot of F-35s and seeking ways to get the most out of them. The Russian invasion of Ukraine demonstrated that the Russians still had serious problems with their air force training and tactics. It didn’t take long for Ukrainian pilots to realize this and take advantage of this by using Western-style tactics that the Russians were unable to cope with. As a result, Russia, with a much larger air force and more modern fighters than Ukraine possessed, was never able to achieve air superiority over Ukraine. NATO members sent Ukraine a lot of Western weapons and the Ukrainians used them effectively to defeat the Russians on the ground as well as in the air. Ukraine has applied for NATO membership and that will apparently happen once the Russians are defeated and out of Ukraine.
So far Russia does not seem to have learned much from their defeats in Ukraine but that may change and Ukraine, and the rest of NATO, wants to be prepared. One way to do that is in Falcon Strike, where some F-35s are used as enemy aircraft, to give European pilots practical experience against enemy stealth aircraft. American and Israeli F-35s also participated in Falcon Strike 2022 in order to share their experience with F-35s. Israeli F-35s have seen more combat, especially over Syria, than any other nation. Israel is also preparing their F-35s to take on more aggressive Iranian threats.
China already has its J-20 stealth fighter in service and is working on a sixth-generation fighter as are the American. European nations are collaborating on developing the Tempest sixth-generation fighter. These even more advanced stealth fighters won’t enter service until the 2030s. Russia is also developing a sixth-generation fighter but facing delays because they don’t have the money and other resources to keep up with the American, Chinese and European efforts. When Tempest does enter service it will use F-35s for their dissimilar training.