Lockheed Martin’s F-22 Raptor is widely regarded as the most advanced fighter aircraft in existence; at least that we know of. The very first 5th Generation air superiority fighter in active service, it boasts an array of next-level features that no other aircraft possesses, save for the upcoming F-35 Lightning II, another Lockheed Martin product. So you can imagine, only the US Air Force’s best and brightest are selected to fly the Raptor after passing through the rigorous Raptor B-Course at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida. Once they’re formally declared Raptor pilots, they move on to a Raptor squadron. Given the fact that the F-22, in the right hands, is very nearly untouchable, it would be really easy for their pilots to fall into a lax state, relying too heavily on technology than utilizing (and improving on) their trained skills. We sadly experienced this back in the 1960s with the initially-terrible performance of the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II in Vietnam, where Air Force and Navy brass placed an incredible degree of confidence in the Phantom’s speed and advanced technology (at the time) without stepping up pilot training to match the aircraft. The result of this complacent attitude was shocking. Never again would fighter pilots go untested at home against adversaries before they were deployed overseas. Fast forward nearly 50 years later and we’re once again presented with a technologically-superior fighter aircraft with onboard systems that are designed to shoulder a significant amount of in-flight duties that would generally be placed on the shoulders of the pilot and Weapon Systems Officer (the fella flying in the back of F-15Ds and F-15Es). So how does the USAF keep the tip of their spear, their Raptor pilots, as sharp as possible?
The answer to that question comes in the form of a long, sleek, stubby-winged black T-38 Talon supersonic trainer, an aircraft prospective Raptor pilots are already all too familiar with, thanks to their time in the Undergraduate Pilot Training phase. The Talon, first introduced in 1961, can bust the number, reaching a grand speed of Mach 1.3. They can carry… well, no, actually, they can’t carry any weaponry. And they don’t have radar systems of their own. Truth be told, sending up T-38s as aggressive aircraft isn’t as novel and outlandish an idea as one might think it is. Its brother, the Northrop F-5E/F Tiger, is currently in use with US Naval Reserve adversary squadrons (namely VFC-13 Saints and VFC-111 Sun Downers). You’d think that sending T-38s up against F-22s would be a slaughter in the sky, a peacetime training equivalent of the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot. Reality couldn’t be anywhere farther from this. Placed in the cockpits of these Talons are highly-trained and very experienced Air Force fighter pilots who’ve spent a considerable amount of time flying air superiority fighters, including the Raptor. They know exactly how to train newer F-22 pilots, and how to keep current pilots fit because they’ve been there before.
These special Talons are currently deployed to three locations: Holloman AFB, New Mexico, Tyndall AFB, Florida, and JB Langley-Eustis, Virginia. All were originally loaned to South Korea in 1997 for fighter training, but were returned to the US six years ago and sent to the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG) boneyard at Davis-Monthan AFB in Arizona. When the plans to form up T-38 aggressor detachments for Raptors first emerged, these T-38s were pulled from storage and over the course of 70 days were refitted, X-rayed, engined and brought back to flying condition before being sent off on their new mission. Since the T-38 ordinarily wouldn’t be able to hold a candle to the F-22A, Talons used for adversary purposes are given a technology boost, adding on a package of systems that allow it to face down the Raptor with the open possibility for successful engagement come time to enter the merge and trade aerial punches. Air Force ground crew can strap jamming pods onto Talons as well, allowing F-22 pilots the chance to train against electronic attacks. To make up for the lack of a radar, the T-38s are constantly updated by ground control crew who have radar systems of their own. And to make the fight a little more fair, T-38s are also grouped up with a few other F-22As, also flown by experienced pilots. Combined, they comprise the formidable “Red Air” team, capable of blowing rookie fighter pilots on the “Blue Air” team out of the sky in mock dogfights with efficiency and relative ease. These mock dogfights are carefully planned and executed. Before anyone can call “fight’s on!”, rules and limitations are established. Parameters that simulate real-world conditions and high-risk environments are set forth.
“A lot of missions closely resemble football, honestly … There are two teams and they have opposing goals. Each player must perform a specific route and the opposite teams must react, and vice versa.”
– Lt. Col. Bryan Coyne, 27 FS T-38 Director of Operations (as of November 2014)
The Air Force used to use F-22s for this vital adversarial training mission, and as you read that, you were probably thinking, “yeah, that seems like a far better matchup!”. Currently, since the rest of the world is only beginning to enter the 5th Generation of fighter aviation (with varying degrees of success, I might add), it doesn’t make much sense sending up Raptors to fight a 5th Gen threat, when the current aerial threat is posed by 4th and 4.5th Gen Eastern Bloc (and Chinese clone) fighters. The upgraded T-38s masterfully simulate these modern and current threats for enviable costs. Indeed, T-38s saved the USAF $15.5 million in 2013 over nine months of Raptor adversary flights. How many flights is that in total, you might ask? According to Tyndall AFB Public Affairs, Talons flew a grand total of 831 aggressor training hops in those nine months. That’s some serious saving right there.
So how do you keep the pilots of the world’s most advanced fighter jet ahead of the curve? That’s right, you use a supersonic two-seat trainer that’s just old as my father.