Exclusive: 57th Wing Confirms Plan To Use Threat Representative Color Scheme on the Aggressor F-35s

The Wraith, based on the existing F-16 Viper color scheme is among the designs submitted by Sean Hampton for the 65th AGRS F-35. We don't know yet which scheme will be eventually chosen. This was used here for illustration purposes only. (Artwork courtesy of Sean Hampton Aviation Art)

It’s official: the 65th Aggressor Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base want to give their Lightning stealth jets a “threat representative” color scheme.

Last week we broke the news that the 57th Wing had already started working on camouflage color schemes for the future Aggressor F-35A jets ahead of the reactivation of an Aggressor Squadron at Nellis AFB. In fact, last year the U.S. Air Force announced the plan to reactivate the 65th AGRS, a unit previously flying the F-15C/D, inactivated on Sept. 26, 2014, due to Fiscal Year 2015 budget constraints.

The 65th AGRS will receive about a dozen early production non-combat capable 5th generation aircraft and some artists have been already invited to submit some proposals for the future Aggressor F-35 paint scheme.

F-16s of the 64th Aggressor Squadron, based at Nellis Air Force Base, and 18th AGRS, based at Eielson AFB, Alaska, are pretty famous for sporting paint schemes that make them similar to their Russian or Chinese counterparts. Red Air liveries replicate the paint schemes, markings and insignas of their near peer adversaries, so that pilots in training who come within visual range of these adversary jets get the same sight they would see if they were engaging an actual threat. Some famous “splinter” patterns worn by Nellis AFB’s Aggressors as well as more “traditional” camouflages, like the one applied to U.S. Marine Corps F/A-18 Hornets in the last years, have been inspired by Russian Air Force and Navy aircraft.

In our article published on Sept. 10, 2020, we also published seven designs made by artist Sean Hampton: those were just the artistic renderings of current Aggressor camouflage schemes sported by 64th AGRS and 18th AGRS’ F-16s, applied to the F-35. Sean has submitted other liveries that are not based on existing Viper camouflages but has decided not to release them until the squadron have their unveiling of the chosen schemes. The other designs should be a bit less flamboyant than the current ones. Here’s a comment this Author added to the article about the renderings:

While we don’t have any idea [as to whether] a camouflage color scheme will ever make its way to an F-35 since the LO (Low Observability) coating is one of the aircraft’s most delicate components and, for the moment, no F-35 was ever given anything more exotic than the standard haze paint of the stealth aircraft and some high-visibility tail markings, these ones, inspired to some pretty popular paint schemes, like the “Wraith“, “Ghost“, BDU Splinter, etc, are truly amazing.

In order to learn more about the future of the 65th AGRS and the alleged plan to give it an Aggressor paint scheme we reached out to the 57th Wing.

“The current plan is to seek ACC approval to use a threat representative color scheme on the Aggressor F-35s”, said the PAO Media OPS in an email. “The current timeline is [to receive the first F-35] O/A [On or About] Oct. 1, 2021.”

Dealing with the number of aircraft that will be painted, the 57th Wing Public Affairs said: “At this time it is unknown how many aircraft will be given the special color scheme. Once the 65 AGRS receives ACC approval to utilize a threat representative color scheme the official announcement will be made through PA channels.” Interestingly, it’s still not clear (at least, not officially) how the threat representative color scheme will be applied to the delicate skin of the F-35: “At the moment it is unknown whether the color scheme will be made using paint or decals”. 

Therefore, there is a plan to give some peculiar threat representative color scheme to the Aggressors F-35, although the thing still need to be approved. It remains to be decided what kind of scheme will make it to the Nellis airframes.

To preserve the LO, the Aggressor paint scheme should be made of a combination of colors approved for use on the F-35. Currently, just 6 Federal Standard Paint colors should be approved for use on the type. However, the Air Force could expand the color palette for these aircraft, considered that they are non-combat coded jets so they’re not held to the stringent rules other F-35s are. It basically depends on how much LO they want to preserve.

At the same time, the use of decals seems less likely: there have been some vinyl-wrapped tails in the past, but for longevity (and considering that decals affect the Low Observability too), it would most probably be paint, possibly a more “toned down” scheme than one of the seven eye-catching ones of the renderings submitted by Sean Hampton.

Low Observability: not always needed.

An F-35 pilot who talked us on condition of anonymity said that it makes sense to give the aircraft a full-body paint, even though it implies an LO (Low Observability) penalty. “U.S. combat pilots normally want to train against realistic replicas of the threats; hence, a full LO would not even be too realistic (at least, not yet)…”.

It must also be remembered that the LO of the F-35 is just one of the features of a 5th Gen. aircraft. Indeed, most of the current operations (including combat ones) are carried out with RCS (Radar Cross Section) enhancers also known as radar reflectors or Luneburg lenses. What the F-35 can bring to the table is much more than just stealthiness. Sensor fusion, MADL (Multifunction Advanced Data Link), Information Sharing to 4th gen. aircraft via Link 16, Active Electronically Scanned Arrays (AESA) radar, Distributed Aperture System (DAS), Electro Optical Targeting System (EOTS) and Helmet Mounted Display System.

Here’s what this Author wrote about using the F-35s for the Aggressor role:

An F-35 playing the adversary role would bring the Aggressors lethality to a complete new level. Just think to one think to one of the elements of discontinuity of 5th generation technology if compared to the 4th gen. fighters: Sensor Fusion. The aircraft of previous generations had the ability to carry a wide variety of sensors, each of which represented (and still represents) an interface to the real world: they provide an interpretation of reality, in a specific place and time.

The proliferation of sensors on a “legacy” aircraft clashes with the limited cognitive and processing capacity of a human being. Each sensor exposes its representations to the extent that the pilot is able to interpret them. In other words putting the live feeds coming from 100 surveillance cameras in front of a person’s eyes would be useless because the only effect would be to saturate the person’s attention: at a certain point, whoever is placed in front of a large amount of images would cease to process them. The added value of 5th generation technology is the ability to transform the data collected by the various sensors into information relevant to the pilot at that precise moment.

The information gathered by the aircraft from different sources must be summarized and weighed: an extremely dynamic interface, continuously and in real-time, evaluates the weight of the information it receives to build a picture, or a representation of the surrounding reality, relevant to the carried out mission, and suitable for learning and processing by a man. The fusion engine is much more advanced than a filter that cuts unnecessary information; it is an embryo of Artificial Intelligence, which carries out the “blend” of sensors by bringing out only what is relevant at that precise moment, freeing up a portion of the cognitive capacity that the pilot can use to perform other tasks” told me Col. Davide Marzinotto, Italian Air Force 32° Stormo (Wing) commander in a recent interview.

The Sensor Fusion allows the DAS, the AESA radar and the Electronic Warfare Suite (EWS) to generate a “picture” of the scenario in which the aircraft is operating which is sent to the helmet so that the pilot only has the information strictly necessary for the mission management. The goal is to enable the pilot to close the OODA (observe – orient – decide – act) loop as quickly as possible.

For example, if the F-35 is flying in enemy airspace the Sensor Fusion enables or disables a certain sensor or points it in the right direction in order to draw a tactical picture of the situation that is relevant to the current mission. If, during a mission, the F-35 detects the signal emitted by an enemy radar at a distance that does not constitute a threat, the on-board computer will acquire its position but will not communicate its presence to the pilot in order not to distract him with a irrelevant information: the data will however be saved because it is useful for updating the opponent’s EOB (Electronic Order of Battle), but the existence and location of the emitter will not be highlighted on the map since it is not relevant to the current mission. As you may understand, this is (just) one of the reasons why the F-35 is emerging as an extremely fearsome adversary in an air-to-air scenario.

As a side note, an F-35 mock-up, painted in arctic color scheme similar to the Splinter Arctic used on the 18th AGRS F-16, was located at Lockheed Martin’s Forth Worth, from at least Apr. 2012 to December 2018. As reported in a previous story here at The Aviationist, the model was originally used to test aspects of LM Aircraft Test Facility and for flight line safety and fire suppression testing. The paint scheme, “not directly related to the model and its role in the program”, was created with spare F-16 paint, and was chosen by the local artisans. Who knows, maybe in the future an Aggressor F-35 will get the same camouflage of the somehow famous Ft. Worth mock up…

About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.