Europe Considers Red Air Needs As Fighter Fleets Shrink

Royal  Netherlands Air Force F-16
Draken International will purchase 12 former Royal Netherlands Air Force F-16s, with options for 28 more, to service U.S. adversary-air contracts.
Credit: Tony Osborne/AW&ST

Europe’s air forces are considering how to resolve a regional shortfall in red air capability. 

As fighter fleets across the continent continue to shrink, air forces are struggling to provide aircraft to act as adversaries against which to train for aerial engagements. Even where the numbers still exist, there is the challenge of increasing costs per flying hour. 

  • EDA conducted red air market consultation in February. 
  • U.S. adversary air companies are snapping up F-16s for contracts.

The reduction in European fighter numbers since the end of the Cold War makes clear the difficulties commanders face. This is particularly true for nations purchasing Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. 

Prior to the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, Denmark was operating around 70 F-16s. During the 2000s, that fleet was reduced to around 48—and will soon be replaced by 27 F-35s. In Belgium, the 150-strong Cold War F-16 fleet is now just over 50, to be replaced by 34 F-35s. Switzerland wants to supplant a combined fleet of more than 50 F/A-18 Hornets and Northrop F-5s with 36 fighters, with the F-35 recently selected

Europe’s red air challenge mirrors that of the U.S., says Dion Polman, aviation project officer for the European Defense Agency (EDA), which works with EU nations to strengthen defense cooperation. 

Over the last five years, the U.S. Air Force and Navy have both turned to private adversary-air operators, which have been snapping up secondhand third- and fourth-generation fighters from across the world to feed U.S. requirements. This has driven operators to acquire the first commercially operated F-16s, which recently made their first flights in Arizona in May with Canada-based training contractor Top Aces. Another training company, Draken International, purchased 12 ex-Royal Netherlands Air Force F-16s; it has options on 28 more as the Netherlands phases the type from service in favor of the F-35. 

In February, the EDA held a preliminary market consultation with adversary-air operators and other training suppliers to fashion a model for red air operations in Europe, an initiative that aligns with the EDA’s air-superiority-capability development priority. 

“We are trying to build a menu for member states to pick and choose from to fill in the shortfall in red air,”  Polman says. “Those member states are still deciding which solution they would like.”

A handful of European countries currently have access to an organic aggressor capability—notably, the UK and France with subsonic jet trainers, although these are rapidly approaching their end of life. 

Elsewhere, Germany has turned to Top Aces to provide A-4 Skyhawks as a red air capability for the country’s Eurofighters, while the French Navy has contracted Secapem Defense Training Services (SDTS) to provide A-4s and Aermacchi MB-339s.

A spinoff of SDTS is planning to build a red air capability using ex-French Air and Space Force Dassault Mirage 2000s, while Draken—which took over the aviation services business of Cobham—is eyeing potential European needs. 

“Right now, we are still in a transition phase where the air forces can still use the fourth-generation fighters to play the red air role. . . . But we are looking for a solution for the next 10 years,” Polman says. 

The EDA is discussing four options with member states. One is organic aggressor units, essentially nations opting to acquire an in-house capability. The second is a multinational military aggressor unit that could deploy to different countries when needed. 

The third option is to outsource the capability but contract it on a national basis, as is currently done in Germany. The fourth choice is to contract it on a multinational basis, with the red air aircraft deployed to the countries where they are required.

Even once an approach has been selected, potential hurdles will remain in securing certifications from regulators if the aircraft are civilian-operated and -owned. Also, ex-U.S. combat aircraft such as the F-16 can be used only with approval from the U.S. State Department. 

The commercially operated fighters operating under contract in Europe are flying under U.S. and Canadian approvals, which need to be acknowledged by the respective European authorities. 

Requirements for a proposed European red air fleet include transonic or supersonic performance. Supersonic performance will be required for only part of the missions flown, potentially making mixed fleets an attractive option for operators. 

Several respondents to the EDA’s request provided “well-developed solutions,” Polman says. Working groups are now discussing the way forward, but it is unclear when a decision could emerge.

Tony Osborne

Based in London, Tony covers European defense programs. Prior to joining Aviation Week in November 2012, Tony was at Shephard Media Group where he was deputy editor for Rotorhub and Defence Helicopter magazines.


The F-35, which many European nations are purchasing, in the counter-air role is designed to launch its missiles beyond visual range. The same is true with European nations which are equipping themselves the Meteor missile. Since this implies a BVR fight, does the need for "Red Air" to train for "yank and bank" combat still exist? Especially since the last "gun kill" occured in the 1980s.
Good question. In future wars, the rules of engagement may mandate visual identification for prior to firing on an enemy aircraft. As such, pilots must maintain their ACM capabilities, or risk losses akin to those experienced during the Vietnam war. There were also several visual air-to-air engagements during Gulf War I, Desert Storm. Having said that, it appears that the focus of commercial "red air" operators has been to provide "fast jets," equipped with reasonably up-to-date sensors and countermeasures, at a relatively low cost. When operated by experienced pilots, those aircraft can offer a realistic threat to relatively inexperienced pilots of generation 4+/5 aircraft. That way new pilots can learn to employ tactics and modern fused sensors to defeat multiple enemy aircraft. In the end, with commercial operators providing aircraft as fodder for BVR engagements, gov't owned/operated aircraft can focus on providing adversary aircraft for ACM training. It's a win-win for everyone, except hopefully, the bad guys of the future. Hope that makes sense.