Adversarial advantage: T-38 keeps Raptors sharp

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Austin Harvill
  • 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs
A team gathers before the big day, uniforms crisp, faces tight with anticipation and concentration. From their ranks, a man steps forward to go over their first play. A series of X's and O's are configured on the table, each member asks a question or makes a comment before their final plan comes together.

With their strategy in mind, they head out to the field and put on their helmets.

The pilots of the 94th and 27th Fighter Squadrons are ready to "play" in the skies above Langley Air Force Base against their most difficult adversaries: themselves.

The 27th FS employs 14 T-38 Talons, a venerable aircraft created in the late 50s, to act as adversaries to the F-22 Raptor. While these older jets may not have the power or capabilities of their more advanced brethren, they replicate common threats an F-22 pilot might encounter on a real-world mission.

Furthermore, the pilots of the T-38s have been through advanced training similar to the F-22 pilots, and they carry some tech with them to increase their threat potential. With the aid of a few F-22s, the "red air" T-38 team can hold their own as adversary fighters against the "blue air" F-22 team.

"A lot of missions closely resemble football, honestly," said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Brian Coyne, 27th Fighter Squadron T-38 Director of Operations. "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."

But these exercises are anything but games - each match determines how well F-22 pilots can respond to threats they might encounter in a real-world mission.

"The red air team isn't second string at all - these pilots are doing their best to knock down the blue air team," said Coyne. "If they do succeed, that means there are opportunities to advance. Our pilots are flying simulated missions in a real-world environment. This high-level of training prevents losses in a combat environment, because every time we make a mistake in training, we learn from it."

This training also comes at a discount, said Coyne. The T-38s originally arrived at Langley in 2010 to provide a cost-effective alternative for training. Prior to their arrival, other F-22s had to fly as the red air team, simulating enemy tactics instead of practicing their real strategies. Not only did this take training away from the pilots, but it didn't make any sense fiscally, said Coyne.

"The T-38 sips gas compared to an F-22," Coyne said. "Also, it's a simple jet, so maintenance is a fraction of the cost of most fighters. All in all, the T-38 is ideally suited to simulate an adversary fighter."

Such a simple plane does have some drawbacks, but they are easily mitigated by ground control and the inclusion of advanced tech onboard. Talons do not have a radar system, but ground control provides up-to-date info to the pilots.
In addition to adding to their own offensive capabilities with ground-borne radar, the T-38s can attempt to affect the Raptor's onboard radar systems by jamming them.

"A lot of adversaries have electronic attack technology, so our T-38s are no different," said Coyne. "We can usually hook up one or two Talons with a jamming pod that replicates a combat environment."

From cost efficiency to combat prowess, the T-38 provides everything pilots need to improve their air combat skills, said Coyne. Furthermore, he believes the continued success of the T-38 adversary program will lead to the future success of our fighting force.

"The Talon does a great job emulating the enemy," said Coyne. "As a Talon pilot, I know we're providing training our Raptor pilots need. Anytime I take-off, I know I'm part of a program that will help save lives in combat, whether they're our pilots or those we protect each and every day."