Marine Fighter Training Squadron 401 (VMFT-401) “Snipers” is a United States Marine Corps adversary squadron (aggressors) based at MCAS Yuma in Arizona (the premiere aviation training base of the USMC). An adversary squadron is tasked with providing realistic training for USMC fighter pilots by acting as an enemy aircraft (an aggressor). They implement tactics and flying techniques of potential adversaries to provide the best training possible to improve Marine Corps pilot air-to-air combat readiness and also work closely in training with the US Navy, USAF and allied nations.
VMFT-401, a USMC Reserve squadron is the only USMC adversary squadron (the USAF and US Navy operate similar squadrons) and they fly the Northrop F-5N/F Tiger II fighter (the N model is a single-seater and the F is the two-seat trainer variant). The F-5N is similar to the performance and flight characteristics of smaller earlier combat aircraft of Soviet origin but does not have the Mach 2.0+ capability of more modern fighters (the top speed of the F-5N is Mach 1.6). It is cheaper to run though! The F-5N/F fighters are painted in all sorts of wonderful camouflage schemes to represent those aircraft of potential adversaries around the world (Russian style blue-grey “ghost” schemes and various desert schemes).
The reservist pilots in VMFT-401 are former enlisted USMC pilots and today many of them are airline pilots and the like in their day jobs but don’t let that fool you these guys are some of the best of the best! They average 2,500 flight hours in fighter aircraft and are air combat tactics instructors with most of them having graduated from the famous “Top Gun” United States Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program (SFTI) or the Marine Corps Weapons and Tactics Instructor course (WTI).
VMFT-401 is under the command of the 4th Marine Aircraft Wing and was activated at MCAS Yuma on March 18th, 1986. Until 1989 the squadron operated Israeli Air Industries (IAI) F-21A Kfir (Young Lion) fighters leased from Israel as their adversary fighter. The Kfir was selected due to its fast acceleration Mach 2.0 performance and relatively poor maneuverability, which were similar characteristics to the then contemporary Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-23 Flogger Mach 2.3 capable variable-geometry fighter widely used by the Soviets and Eastern Bloc nations. 25 modified IAI Kfir C.1 fighters (re-designated as F-21A) were leased from 1985 to 1989 for use by both the US Navy (12 which were returned in 1988) and USMC (13).
In 1989 VMFT-401 re-equipped with Northrop F-5E/F Tiger II fighters (the US Navy had already been operating the type in the Adversary role). In 2006 the US Navy/USMC purchased 36 low flight hour ex-Swiss Air Force F-5E/F’s to replace older adversary aircraft and fitted them with improved avionics including an AN/APG-69 pulse doppler radar. These were re-designated as the F-5N Tiger II.
The designation of “N” is standard today for USMC and US Navy adversary aircraft that are not frontline operational aircraft of that service i.e. the US Navy in addition to the F-5N Tiger II also operates the General Dynamics F-16N Falcon (modified F-16C/D’s) and the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet fighter in the adversary role but the various models of the F/A-18 keep their standard designations as they are operational on aircraft carriers. In the past the US Navy also operated nimble Douglas A-4E/F/M Skyhawk attack aircraft and the TA-4J two-seat trainer version in the adversary role but began to retire them in 1993 with Fleet Composite Squadron 8 (VC-8) the last to retire its A-4’s in 2003 (A-4’s were featured in the classic Top Gun movie from 1986 as were the F-5E’s as fictional MiG-28’s).
USMC McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet multi-role fighters from Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron VMFAT-101 “Sharpshooters“ based at MCAS Miramar have also been painted in adversary schemes and used in that role when required for training exercises. VMFAT-101 is responsible for training combat ready USMC aircrews.
2015 YUMA AIRSHOW
1 twin seat lead F-5F and 3 single seat F-5N fighters of VMFT-401 “Snipers” conducted a number of flyby formation passes at the 2015 Yuma Airshow at MCAS Yuma. During the announcers commentary about the pilots flying on the day of the airshow, many of them listed “annoying their wife/kids” as a hobby in their bio. I guess that’s a good thing for someone who is flying as an adversary. You want to annoy the “enemy” and not let them outfly you!
The “Snipers” provided an entertaining and colourful alternative to the normal low-visibility grey military aircraft that normally fly at an airshow. I was happy to see them zipping by and it was one of many highlights from the 2015 Yuma Airshow.