The Australian air force has sold 46 retired F-18A twin jet fighters to a commercial firm, Air USA that uses retired jets and retired fighter pilots to carry out pilot and air combat training for the military. This sort of thing has become a big business and began with the American military and spread to a growing number of other nations as well because the training is excellent and cheaper than using active-duty pilots and their aircraft to do it. Because the training aircraft are unarmed, and without any top-secret gear, it’s practical to use older jets to represent the types of aircraft an enemy might use.
Australia obtained 75 F-18A/B fighters in the 1980s to replace older French Mirage III fighters. The F-18As are often used to represent a number of different Russian jets during training. Mirage type fighters are also sought for air combat training. In 2017 Mirage F1 fighters were being retired from active service and most of these retired Mirages were bought by ATAC and Draken, the two major American firms that provide adversary aircraft to train combat pilots, mainly for the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy. The most recent Mirage F1 sale was to Draken International, which bought 22 of them from the Spanish Air Force which had retired its Mirage F1M (“M” is for modernized, in the 1990s) in 2013 but kept them in good condition because these aircraft have been very popular on the used-fighter market.
Earlier in 2017, France sold 63 retired Mirage F1s to Draken’s major competitor ATAC (Airborne Tactical Advantage Company). In both cases, the Mirage F1 was to be used as adversary aircraft to train combat pilots. Most recent sales of Mirage F1s have been to these commercial firms like ATAC and Draken that will modify, or even refurbish the Mirage F1s for combat training. The retired Mirages sold for a few hundred thousand dollars each. The F-18As were not much more expensive.
ATAC (a division of Textron) and Draken (independent) are two of about a dozen American and foreign firms that, in the 1990s, pioneered the business of providing flight and combat training mainly to the American military (air force, navy and marines) as well as foreign customers. This is a rapidly growing business for the simple reason that it is cheaper and more effective than even large air forces doing it themselves. Air USA is one more successful private firms hiring retired combat pilots and using much less expensive aircraft for this training. A Mirage F1, for example, is much cheaper (about one fifth the cost) to operate per flight hour than F-16s or F-18s. Using more experienced retired pilots is also cheaper and more effective because the adversary aircraft are being operated by pilots with a lot more combat flying experience.
The use of contractors for military functions proliferated after the Cold War ended in 1991, especially in the United States and Europe. This was nothing new. The CIA, and later SOCOM (Special Operations Command) have long used contractor firms for logistics and air transport, especially in parts of Asia, South America and Africa where even civilian charter airline service was not available, or simply because the missions were classified.
ATAC and Draken are the largest commercial firms providing military flight training because they were pioneers and have taken on a wide range of training. This began with basic flight training but then both firms expanded into training for combat pilots and that included “adversary training” that uses Western aircraft and veteran military pilots or accurately represent potential enemy warplanes.
In the past, the American A-4 and F-5 were popular for this task. But potential foes are using more capable fighters and the Mirage F1, which entered service in the mid-1970s and often were upgraded, became a popular choice for adversary training. The Spanish Air Force Mirage F1Ms have radars and fire control systems that were modernized in the mid-1990s and remain competitive with those found in the most capable hostile aircraft American fighter pilots can expect to encounter.
France retired the last of its Mirage F1s in 2014 but this aircraft is still used by some countries (Gabon, Iran, Libya and Morocco) and the manufacturer long provided refurbishment and upgrade services for the 720 built through 1992. The Mirage F1 is a 16 ton interceptor that can only carry two tons of weapons. With modern electronics and missiles, it is still a formidable air defense aircraft. ATAC got the Mirage F1s for a few hundred thousand dollars each and France will have them demilitarized (all classified or strictly military equipment removed) and ATAC will then have about half of them modified to act as various types of potential enemy fighters. The rest of the Mirage F1s will be used for spares which will enable ATAC to use some of the Mirage F1s for a decade or more. Draken paid more for the Spanish Mirage F1Ms mainly because these aircraft had more modern electronics from the 1996 upgrade that cost over $4 million per aircraft.
The 23 ton F-18A is now popular for its ability to emulate late-model Russian 34 ton Su-27/30 aircraft. The F-18A entered service in 1983, 13 years before the Su-30 arrived to provide competition for the F-15 and 30 ton F-18E that showed up in 2001. The F-18A is a bit smaller than the F-18E but is an affordable stand-in for the Su-30.
Since the late 1990s, the use of retired combat personnel as "adversary pilots" became more popular and contractors soon expanded that that to supply adversary aircraft as well. In the 1990s civilian instructors were already being used for part of military flight training. But with so many pilots getting out, the navy and air force could no longer afford to provide military pilots to play the role of the bad guys in "Top Gun" type exercises. Former military pilots were hired to play the bad guys and were very good at it became many had done that sort of thing before they retired.