The American F-35 aggressors and their new Chinese J-20 camouflage

Damage to a special radar-absorbing coating during painting can significantly reduce the stealth of F-35s.

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Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P. Chacko is the publisher of Frontier India. He holds an M.B.A in International Business. Books: Author: Foxtrot to Arihant: The Story of Indian Navy's Submarine Arm; Co Author : Warring Navies - India and Pakistan. *views are Personal

The recent reactivation of the U.S. Air Force’s 65th “Aggressor” Squadron with F-35 fighter jets painted in “splinter” camouflage, similar to Chinese J-20s, has raised questions as to whether or not it affects the stealth or furtive ability of the fighter.

On June 9, the United States Air Force (USAF) announced the reactivation of its 65th Squadron, which was deactivated in 2014, of “aggressor” aircraft at Nellis Air Base in Nevada. In the presentation images, the new Lockheed Martin F-35 assigned to the unit could be seen with a new camouflage of two shades of grey of “splinter” type to resemble 5th generation fighters such as the Chinese J-20 and the Russian Su-57s. It’s the first time these fighters have been seen in a camouflage that deviates from the standard grey that all the others roll off the production line at Lockheed Martin in Fort Worth, Texas.

“Using the F-35 as an aggressor allows pilots to train against low radar signature threats similar to those our adversaries are developing,” said Colonel Scott Mills, commander of the 57th Operations Group, of which the 65th Squadron is a part. But the new “splinter” camouflage of the F-35 has raised doubts that it could affect the furtive or stealth qualities, a relevant capacity of the F-35, so as not to be located by enemy radars and to which the paint scheme contributes.

Addressing this issue, the USAF spokesman at Nellis stated that the new camouflage should not negate or interfere with its low signature, meaning that it can actually play the role of a stealth fighter aircraft to train fighter pilots of USAF and allies.

“Nellis maintenance personnel applied alternate paint to create the unique camouflage scheme after coordinating with the F-35 Joint Program Office. … Although since the application of the alternative paint is made for the first time, we cannot guarantee that it will have any adverse impact on the stealth properties of the F-35. Alternate paint can be removed at any time to return our aircraft to its original configuration,” the spokesperson explained.             

However, he added that “further tests will be required to discern whether there is a difference in a priori poorly observable properties. The basic USAF standard aircraft outline was used, over which the second tone was applied, and the [Lockheed Martin] engineers approved the use and application process of the extra paint.”

In 2019, the U.S. AF press service had said that the role of the alleged enemy would be played by the old versions of the F-35. They will start arriving at the base in 2022.

The F-35As of the 65th Squadron will be used in major USAF exercises, in USAF Weapons School missions, in international courses (such as the demanding Red Flag and Green Flag), and in events test and operational evaluation, which are carried out at the Nellis macro air base and its adjoining Nevada test and training macro range. 

Painting F-35 with rival colours

F-16s and F-18s have been painted in the colours of USAF enemies, but the U.S. showed no hurry to paint the F-35s in such colours due to technical reasons. Damage to a special radar-absorbing coating during painting can significantly reduce the stealth of F-35s.

Adopting a J-20 paint scheme

In 2019, a USAF F-16 received red and black to mimic the fighter planes of the People’s Republic of China. 

The U.S. Air Force had shown a new scheme for the F-16 of the 64th “aggressor” squadron. It was a black colour, similar to the one presented earlier. An important difference between the new scheme was the bright red lines located over the entire surface of the aircraft.

The corresponding colour was chosen in relation to the black colouring of Chinese fifth-generation fighters. Thus, the new F-16 would imitate the J-20 and J-31 aircraft. 

U.S. Air Force’s 64th & 65th Aggressor Squadron

The Aggressor Squadron plays the role of the enemy during the exercise. The Air Force, the U.S. Navy, and the Marine Corps have their own “aggressors”, and a variety of colour schemes are used. 

Nellis Air Base is home to the U.S. Air Force’s 64th Aggressor Squadron, and the 65th was recently reactivated. Aircraft from these squadrons traditionally play the role of a potential enemy in the exercises of the Armed Forces of the United States and other NATO countries. To this end, they are traditionally repainted in colours more characteristic of the air forces of other states. Earlier it was either the blue colouring of Russian aircraft manufactured by the Sukhoi design bureau or shades of green and brown, familiar to Middle Eastern countries, such as Iran. 

The main task of these units is to give American pilots training to get used to the appearance of enemy aircraft and overcome the nervousness that arises in a pilot when in a combat situation he or she first encounters an unusual plane for him. The threat is presented visually, and the American pilots are much more likely to get close to the enemy and visually recognize and destroy them. 


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