MIGHTY TACTICAL
Alex Lockie

Why the US is painting jets to look like Russian fighters

(57th Wing Commander/Facebook)

The US Air Force's 64th Aggressor Squadron, which uses 20 F-16 fighter jets to train the rest of the force on realistic battle scenarios against enemy fighters, will use the paint scheme of Russia's newest fighter jet, the Su-57, for one of its jets.

And this should give the US a considerable advantage in aerial combat against the Russian jet that's meant to take on US F-22 and F-35 fighters, Brig. Gen. Robert G. Novotny, who commands 38 squadrons including the 64th, told The Drive.


Beyond-visual-range radars and missiles that can seek heat or electronic emissions have made visual camouflage on aircraft somewhat less of a priority over the years, but Novotny said camo still has an important psychological effect.

A rendering of the F-16's new paint scheme.

(57th Wing Commander / Facebook)

The Su-57 sports a "digital shark" paint job of pixelated blues and grays that distorts what pilots may see in the air. The US, as a counterpoint, has largely abandoned painting its jets with camouflage and has moved to integrating stealth coatings.

"Long ago, when aerial combat almost always involved visually acquiring the adversary, an enemy aircraft paint scheme could provide an advantage by either delaying detection, i.e., it blended in with the background environment, or it could confuse a pilot by masking its aspect angle or range," Novotny told The Drive.

In the past, the Aggressor Squadron has sported paint jobs from Russia's Su-34 and Su-35 fighters, as well as China's J-20 stealth fighter.

A major advantage for US fighters

"The aggressor paint schemes serve a purpose other than just looking cool," Novotny said. He cited the book "Red Eagles: America's Secret MiGs" by Steve Davies that explains "buck fever," a phenomenon that happens to fighter pilots upon seeing the enemy.

Novotny said Davies described it as "the emotion a new hunter feels the first time they aim a rifle at a deer," or something that can cause well-trained pilots to freeze up and fail to act in combat.

(Russian Embassy / Twitter)

"Although the 64th Aggressors are not flying actual [Russian] aircraft, we use adversary paint schemes to help mitigate the risk of buck fever," Novotny continued. "Based on that threat-representative training, our warfighters are much more likely to arrive at a merge, visually identify the enemy, and kill!"

The Aggressor with the new paint job will soon start in on a busy schedule of simulated air combat against US fighters like F-15s, F-22s, and F-35s in exercises like Red Flag at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, where the squadron is based.

While the Su-57 paint job is designed to ready the US for combat against a formidable Russian fighter, it was not the obvious first choice, or even a choice made by Novotny — he posed the question to his Facebook followers, who overwhelmingly chose the Su-57.

Though the Su-57 has no large orders on the books and may never see a large role in Russia's air force, people apparently jumped at the idea of a US fighter taking on the new challenge.

Novotny, for his part, agreed that the Su-57 was a relevant foe to train against.

This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.