LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — No one yet knows the cause of yesterday's plane crash in a northeast Las Vegas neighborhood. But we do know the jet was owned and operator by Draken, a private provider of tactical fighter aircraft for contract air services, including military and defense industry customers.
13 Action News talked with retired Brigadier General Robert Novotny. He says budget cuts are to blame for the outsourcing of aggressor squadrons, whose job is to play the part of the enemy in aerial training.
"We used to have two aggressor squadrons at Nellis Air Force Base. Those are the painted planes. And the aggressors, they are our professional scout team. So they study the enemy, they fly like the enemy, they talk on the radios like the enemy, they employ weapons like the enemy. Just like in professional sports, if you train against what you think the other team is going to do, then when you go into the big game with them, you maybe have seen some of their plays and you understand how they're going to react.
But in 2013, Novotny says billions of dollars were cut from the Air Force's budget, forcing Nellis to turn to private companies, like Draken, to supply adversary aircraft and pilots on contract.
"When we cut one of those squadrons, and then simultaneously we brought on some really capable fighter jets like the F-22 and the F-35, we recognize we had a massive deficit of quantity of aggressors. And so, since it was much more expensive for us to rebirth the squadron that we shut down during sequestration, we went out to some private companies, who were out purchasing older, either non-U.S. or older U.S. fighter jets, and they were providing aggressor capabilities, adversary air capabilities on contract. They hire retired or ex-Air Force and Navy fighter pilots, and they fly capable but older equipment, and they provide a very valuable service for us in the training realm," said Novotny.
Playing the part of the enemy in aerial training, Novotny says these pilots have thousands of hours of experience. But they're still people, so they're not perfect.
"As a pilot my whole entire life, in every safety report there's some minor component of pilot error for sure. And I'm not saying that was necessarily the case in this crash yesterday. But it's definitely a human being involved in the system, and humans are incredibly well-trained and motivated and capable, but we've got flaws too," Novotny admitted.
He adds that these private planes are subject to rigorous regulatory oversight, including air force safety inspections. But bottom line, these contracted jets are often generations old, like the Mirage F-1 that crashed yesterday just south of Nellis Air Force Base.
"It is not a front-line fighter jet. It's not a plane you want to take to war against a very capable adversary. It might have been a good airplane back in the '70s for what it was used for. And it's not a hit on the F-1 itself, it's just the defensive advancements that these countries have put up have made that airplane really just not effective in a combat environment. It's a good training platform for us, but it's probably not going into combat anytime soon," said Novotny.
You may be wondering, 'Why don't we just bring back the air force aggressor squadron that was cut?' Novotny says it's not that easy. Not only would it cost a lot more money, but he says it would require a lot more manpower as well, pilots and maintainers that have since been reassigned to other missions.