The French built Mirage F1 fighter is rapidly being retired from active service but most of these retired Mirages are being bought by the two major American firms (ATAC and Draken) 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 retired its Mirage F1M (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 recently 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.
ATAC (a division of Textron) and Draken (independent) are American firms which 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. The private firms hire retired combat pilots and used much less expensive aircraft for this training. A Mirage F1, for example, are 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. This is a common function for basic flight training but these two 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. 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 be 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.
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.