March 20, 2012: For the third time in the last six months the Israeli Air Force has hosted foreign fighter pilots for tactical training. Israeli fighter pilots are considered the best trained in the world, and Israel maintains a special training program, complete with pilots trained and equipped to operate as likely foes would, to train their own pilots. The latest nation to send fighters and pilots for training is Poland, flying F-16s in for that purpose. Previously, Italy had sent Typhoons and Tornados and Greece F-16s.
The Israeli training center is based on the one pioneered by the U.S. Air Force Red Flag program and the U.S. Navy's Top Gun training. Using American aircraft for "aggressor (or dissimilar) training" began in the 1960s. The original "Top Gun" fighter pilot school was established in 1969, by the U.S. Navy, in response to the poor performance of its pilots against North Vietnamese pilots flying Russian fighters. What made the Top Gun operation different was that the training emphasized how the enemy aircraft and pilots operated. This was called "dissimilar training". In the past, American pilots practiced against American pilots, with everyone flying American aircraft and using American tactics. It worked in World War II because the enemy pilots were not getting a lot of practice and were using similar aircraft and tactics anyway. Most importantly, there was a lot of aerial combat going on, providing ample opportunity for on-the-job training. Not so in Vietnam, where the quite different Russian-trained North Vietnamese were giving U.S. aviators an awful time. The four week Top Gun program solved the problem. The air force followed shortly with its Red Flag school.
Over the last 40 years the two training programs have developed differently, and the entire concept of "dissimilar training" has changed. The navy kept Top Gun as a program to hone a fighter pilot's combat skills. The air force made their Red Flag program more elaborate, bringing in the many different types of aircraft involved in combat missions (especially electronic warfare). But after the Cold War ended it became increasingly obvious that none of America's potential enemies was providing their fighter pilots with much training at all.
In other words, the dissimilar training for U.S. fighter pilots was not as crucial as it had been during the Cold War. Actually, it had been noted that flying skills of Soviet pilots was declining in the 1980s, as economic problems in the USSR caused cuts in flying time. During that period American pilots were actually increasing their flying time. Moreover, U.S. flight simulators were getting better. American pilots were finding that even the game oriented combat flight simulators had some training value.
So in the late 1990s, Top Gun and Red Flag found their budgets cut. But the programs remain, as does the memory of why they were set up in the first place. If we find that, say, China is continuing to improve its combat aviation, and gives its fighter pilots more flying time and their politicians maintain a bellicose attitude towards the U.S., there will be a need to increase American Top Gun training. Because of the new Chinese "dissimilar training" effort, the U.S. Top Gun and Red Flag schools are being restored to their former prominence, and Israel has become one of the best Red Flag operations outside the United States. The Chinese move is certainly a very meaningful one, as it shows that they are serious about preparing their pilots to fight and defeat Taiwanese and American pilots. Dissimilar training is how that is done and for most nations Israel is the nearest place to get it.