America's private air forces for hire continue to rapidly expand to meet looming demand for contracted adversary support services. Draken International has emerged as the behemoth in the marketplace and has acquired 22 Dassault Mirage F1s from Spain to be the backbone of its advanced, radar-equipped, supersonic aggressor fleet. The first of these has arrived at the company's Lakeland, Florida facility and is now undergoing assembly.
Photos of the unpacking process popped up on Draken's Facebook page, with the F1's svelte frame being shipped on cradles inside of long wooden crates.
Draken is working with South African defense contractor Paramount Aerospace to regenerate the Mirages, along with a dozen Atlas Cheetahs the company bought to satisfy demand for increasingly advanced adversary support. Draken states the following in press release:
Paramount Aerospace specializes in the modernization of fixed-wing platforms including leading the previous modernization of the Mirage F1M while still in Spanish Air Force military service. Paramount possesses extensive capabilities on the Mirage F1 with full airframe and engine overhaul capability, as well as the ability to upgrade and modernize avionics and mission systems.
"We are looking forward to working with one of the few companies in the world that possess the extensive depth of F1 experience and knowledge that Paramount brings to the table. We are especially confident given Paramount's experience modernizing the same Mirage F1M jets we now own when they were in prior Spanish Air Force service," said Jared Isaacman, CEO of Draken International.
Paramount Group acquired the entire South African Mirage F1 fleet, along with spares, simulators, training aids and other related material. The Mirage F1 represents an ideal solution for low-cost Super Sonic Fighter capability, and Paramount offers a complete air-power package, with full training and technical support for the aircraft. Paramount also operates a fighter aircraft pilot training Academy in South Africa, the only one of its kind on the African continent.
Ivor Ichikowitz, Group Chairman of Paramount Group said, “We are extremely excited by the partnership with Draken International and the establishment of long-term relationships in support of the US Air Force. There are very strong synergies between our organizations in meeting the ever-increasing demand for the effective utilization of legacy aircraft in adversary training. Our collaboration with Draken underlines the importance of strategic partnerships for providing flexible, scalable and affordable solutions for the US Air Force.”
The F1s and Cheetahs will join Draken's blossoming fleet of nearly 150 airframes, which includes A-4 Skyhawks, L159 Honeybadgers, L-39 Albatrosses, MB339s, and other support aircraft. The company also owns dozens of MiG-21s, although they don't seem to be a part of its regular operations.
The big advantage the F1s and Cheetahs will bring to the fight isn't necessarily agility, but supersonic speed and a modern radar that can approximate the capabilities of a fourth-generation enemy fighter but in a more efficient manner. They will be upgraded with new avionics and wiring to handle a host of new stores, such as electronic warfare pods, as well.
I predicted the coming explosion of contractor adversary support services nearly a decade ago and have closely watched those predictions become a reality in recent years, which is very exciting. Contractors can bring a lot to the table beyond just saving money and being a more elastic resource for unique training needs. The experience of their pilot cadre alone is an added benefit and asset that goes along with their services. They also allow for more rapid innovation in what is a very costly space, which can end up resulting in higher quality training for combat pilots and more of it.
Just better-matching assets up for the mission at hand will save vast amounts of precious airframe hours and cost. For instance, you don't need an F-15 to provide a subsonic target just for another F-15 pilot to practice radar intercepts, but that is how the U.S. military has trained for decades. Just as I said years ago, in a dawning era that will be dominated by stealth fighters that are notoriously expensive to run and acquire, doing so simply isn't a fiscal option, plus it's simply wasteful.
Dedicated adversary squadrons are also costly to sustain and are often vulnerable to budget cuts. In addition, they don't have nearly enough capacity to maintain fleet readiness and this will only get worse as modern fighters require more aerial targets to challenge their advanced weapons, sensor fusion, and stealth capabilities. And Draken and ATAC have already been augmenting USAF and U.S. Navy aggressor squadrons for years. So they aren't a replacement for them, but are a major helping hand that will be increasingly critical to their mission of providing challenging 'red-air' scenarios.
With Draken continuing to scoop up major contracts with the USAF that will include operating locations all across the United States and beyond, they will need every one of these airframes. And considering the company's major competitor—among an increasing number of others—the now Textron-owned Airborne Tactical Advantage Company (ATAC), is receiving no less than 63 Mirage F1s from France, the type's very unique silhouette is going to suddenly become a fairly common sight in the skies over the United States.
The F1 packs a unique set of features that make it a very attractive platform to satisfy the U.S. military's needs for a contracted 4th generation threat replication aircraft. It was built fairly simple with a strong focus on durability and austere operations. It is relatively fuel-efficient engine for its vintage, it can easily fly at supersonic speeds, it has good endurance, and it has a nice big radar aperture in which a variety of radar sets can be installed. It is also supportable both by the OEM and groups like Paramount Aerospace. Finally, considering 720 F1s were built, there isn't exactly a shortage of spare parts either.
In essence, the F1 is both simple enough and complex enough to meet the mission goals while still being efficient and cost-effective. It is also a fairly straight-forward aircraft to fly and doesn't suffer from some of the limitations and unique handling characteristics of a strict delta-wing designs like the Mirage III/Kfir/Cheetah.
So within a number of months, the U.S. will go from having no flyable F1s to dozens, and U.S. military pilots and radar controllers will have a whole new threat to deal with.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com