The World’s Largest Private Air Force

Lakeland, Florida isn’t America’s most happening city. It’s not constantly in the news for any particular reason, nor does it boast the presence of sports teams that would otherwise generate the city some form of publicity. However, it’s a different story at the city’s Lakeland Linder Regional Airport. If you pay attention, you might just spot the most peculiar sight- dozens of military aircraft parked on a private ramp at the small airport, away from the general aviation terminals. No, Lakeland Linder doesn’t host any aircraft of the US military’s reserve or National Guard units, but it does function as the home of the largest private air force in the world- Draken International.

Dissimilar air combat training (DACT for short) isn’t something especially new or revolutionary to the field of military aviation. It’s been in existence in some form or another since the 1950s with the Navy’s former Fleet Air Gunnery Units, and moving forward with the establishment of TOPGUN in California, and later on, the Air Force’s own weapons program in Nevada. That’s not saying that it isn’t especially important. In Vietnam, American fighter pilots were sorely outclassed between 1965-1968 by the North Vietnamese MiG pilots sent up to challenge them in aerial battle, mostly due to a lack of air combat maneuvering training (i.e. dogfighting) against aircraft with different performance characteristics. Thankfully, after the commissioning of the Ault Report, the US Navy quickly adopted a DACT program (i.e. TOPGUN) that saw graduates from said program display immediate positive results upon their return to the front lines. Over the past twenty years, however, thanks to budget cuts and changing missions, the US Department of Defense has had to reduce its internal organic adversary support component, thus lowering the amount of training American fighter pilots have against platforms that match the capabilities and handling of potential enemy aircraft.

Draken International’s A-4K Skyhawks and an Aero L-39 Albatross. (Photograph copyright: Howard Altman/The Tampa Bay Tribune)
Draken International’s A-4K Skyhawks and an Aero L-39 Albatross. (Photograph copyright: Howard Altman/The Tampa Bay Tribune)

At that point, it became more feasible for the DoD to tender contracts for adversary support to smaller private organizations which maintained small fleets of older fighters, purchased upon their retirement by foreign air forces and flown by experienced Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps aviators. So in that regard, Draken’s actually fairly new to the game, having only been formed in 2011; a mere four years ago. But that’s not saying that they’re a minor league show in any way. To be the world’s largest private air force, you have to field aircraft of the type, and to that end, Draken has a growing roster of 78 fighter jets and trainers with its futuristic logo painted onto their dark green and black fuselages.

Included on Draken’s inventory list are 27 MiG-21 Fishbed supersonic fighters; the very same aircraft American pilots have been tangling with since Vietnam. Cheap to produce, relatively reliable and easy to fly, the Soviet-era Fishbed has served with several air forces throughout the world, even to this day. Draken’s MiG-21bis/MF/UM jets are all modified to help better simulate air-to-air and cruise missile threats. It just so happens that Draken also operates one of the most advanced fleets of A-4 Skyhawks in the world. In 2012, the company purchased a batch of eight A-4K and three A-4Ls from the government of New Zealand, all of which were mothballed and put into storage in 2001 by the Royal New Zealand Air Force after it was decided to eliminate the RNZAF’s fast-jet capabilities. Under Project Kahu, beginning in 1986, the RNZAF had its A-4s refitted with Westinghouse AN/APG-66 radars, a full glass cockpit setup, modernized datalinking, a brand new navigational system, and the ability to carry (and deploy) current generation air-to-air and air-to-ground smart munitions. On top of that, the Draken air wing is rounded off by five Aero L-39 Albatrosses, nine Aermacchi MB-339CB trainers (also purchased from the RNZAF), and 28 L-159E Advanced Light Combat Aircraft.

According to their official website, Draken is staffed by former “USAF Weapons School Instructors, Fighter Weapons School Graduates, TOP GUN Instructors, US Navy Aggressors, Air Liaison Officers, Thunderbirds Demonstration Pilots, and FAC-A Instructors”. Though they exist to provide DACT, threat simulation, JTAC (Joint Terminal Attack Controller) training and a slew of other non-combat services to the US military (and potentially European air forces, pending the establishment of a base of operations in Europe), I’m pretty sure Draken could actually wipe out the aerial component of a small country and provide light/close air support if they were ever given the opportunity to do so.

14 thoughts on “The World’s Largest Private Air Force

  1. Interesting “world’s largest” commentary. I know the Commemorative Air Force has about 160 aircraft. Do you not consider the CAF as a “private” organization?


    1. For all intents and purposes, they are, but their aircraft aren’t combat capable. I would personally categorize theirs as the world’s largest private historical fleet of aircraft.


  2. do you guys compete with ATAC based in Virginia that flies KFIRS powered by a single engine J79-J1E turbojet engine ?


    1. I can’t speak for Draken as I’m not with them, but I can say that ATAC is currently more established in the commercial air support game than Draken is. ATAC is the only civilian organization certified to fly adversarial missions at the Navy’s fighter weapons school, by the way.


  3. Just to be clear, the eight A/TA-4Ks purchased from NZ are a fully combat capable platform with APG66 fire control radar, RTWS, HOTAS, 1553 MUX, glass cockpits, and capable of carrying training & live munitions, such as CATMs, AIM9s, Mavericks, ACMI pods, and MERS/TERS loaded with various ordinance. The 28 Aero L-159 ALCAs are similarly equipped. This fleet has not been demilitarized. Don’t know of any other civilian fleet with these capabilities.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The article may be in error one one small point – as to the Navy starting their fighter school and the USAF following thereafter. The USAF Fighter Weapons school started their course in training fighter tactics out of Nellis in January 1954, at the same place the gunnery school had been since 1949, while the Navy Top Gun school was established in March of 1969. Certainly, however, fighter pilots have always trained against each other before those official schools were established learning and perfecting their craft. The schools only formalized much of the training and allowed those who were really successful to pass on their knowledge and skills to many others. That is why our armed air forces are some of the best trained and skilled in the world.


Leave a Reply to juanmabaiu Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s