As Textron Airborne Solutions pursues the US Air Force’s lucrative adversary air (ADAIR) contract, the company earlier this month acquired 63 Dassault Mirage F1s, ATAC chief executive Jeffrey Parker tells FlightGlobal.

ATAC, which Textron acquired last year, took ownership of the legacy fleet, plus support equipment and 150 engines, on 5 September. Textron plans to use the Mirages towards the USAF’s upcoming award, which requires almost 150 aircraft to fulfil the service’s "red air" training needs.

"Textron is planning to retrofit the F1s with modern avionics systems such as digital radio frequency memory jamming capabilities and upgraded radars, Parker says. “The requirements we're seeing the air force describe clearly include a modern radar such as AESA or a highly capable mechanically scanned array radar."

While the 63-aircraft fleet marks a significant acquisition for a private company, Textron is still searching for additional aircraft to satisfy the USAF’s requirements. However, the company’s options have started waning as it looks for aircraft that can operate for more than a decade or have parts that can be supported at the manufacturing level, Parker says. The field is also narrowing in Europe, and Textron has effectively stopped buying from former Eastern Bloc countries for the time being.

“There are aircraft from eastern Europe that our warfighters would train against, but they do not have a good track record for supportability, documentation and airworthiness certification, which has become important for industry now,” he says. “When you start checking off the things that make aircraft attractive, they start falling away, for those reasons, for politics, and for State Department issues where you cannot buy aircraft from different countries.”

The ADAIR award, estimated at $7.5 billion over ten years, would contract out nearly 37,000 flight hours to provide adversary air services, filling the gaps at the USAF’s 57th Wing weapons school and Red Flag training events, as well as operational test and evaluation missions at Nellis AFB, Nevada. The USAF expects to release a final solicitation in January 2018, with a contract award due the following year.

The air force issued a short-term contract to Draken International in 2015, following the closure of the 65th Aggressor Squadron at Nellis AFB and deactivation of the base’s 19 Boeing F-15s, which had performed red air missions. The one-year, $4.5 million contract signalled a broader shift from organic adversary air provision by USAF pilots to a contracted capability.

“In a perfect world we would have the resources to maintain the aggressor squadrons that we used to have, and we’d do our best to work in house,” Air Combat Command chief Gen Mike Holmes said during the annual Air, Space and Cyber conference near Washington DC. However, he notes: “In the world we’re living in now, I don’t want to have to trade an actual fighter squadron for an aggressor squadron because of limits on my budget. The next best thing is to see if we can contract some of that red air out.”

However contracting out adversary air missions is a temporary measure, and Holmes says the USAF has plans in its budget to return to an organic capability. The contract is still likely to last more than a year, he adds. One possibility to extend the air force’s resources is to create a derivative of its future T-X trainer, after its Air Education and Training Command gets that programme off the ground.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the contract award estimate.