The majority of air forces are maintained and commanded by sovereign states, being part of their military structures and having the aim of protecting the country’s interests. However, there is another kind of air forces: the private ones, belonging to commercial companies and offering their services for profit.
Of course, the mere notion of the existence of private military companies (PMCs) can be mildly shocking, mainly due to the image those companies have. However, not all PMCs consist of (or even have) mercenaries with worn-out paramilitary clothes, sunglasses, large beards and old Kalashnikovs. Many offer a variety of war-related services, from construction and logistics to training and intelligence gathering.
PMC-owned air forces follow the same trend, often by having a number of transport or utility aircraft in their inventory, or a fleet of observation drones of varying size and endurance. But of course, we did not come here to hear about those.
Combat-oriented private air forces exist too, and they can broadly be categorized as either aimed at assisting training or participating in a real war. Counterintuitively, the second ones are often much less impressive.
While it is very hard to get concrete information on the type and amount of aircraft the prominent (and secretive) PMCs operate, some intelligence tends to slip out. Possibly the first private firm to employ heavy airpower was Executive Outcomes from South Africa, who conducted counter-insurgency operations in Angola and Sierra Leone in the early 90s. In addition to an array of ex-Soviet heavy armor, the company operated one Mi-24 Hind and three Mi-8 Hip helicopters, three MiG-23 fighters, and converted a squadron of Pilatus PC-7 trainers for ground attack. The company was established as a “helping hand” to South African special forces, thus had close ties with the country’s military, and was disbanded by the government in 1998.
Executive Outcomes’ situation is somewhat similar to the much more recent story of Wagner Group, the shadowy Russian PMC allegedly owned by the oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin. While Wagner’s independence from the Russian army is a matter of debate, there is no question that the company itself maintains an image of non-allegiance. There is no better example of that than a fleet of MiG-29 Fulcrum fighters with covered markings and numbers that appeared in Syria in the summer of 2020 and were later spotted in Libya, in whose civil war Russia says it is not involved. According to U.S. Africa command, Wagner at some point operated at least 14 jets – MiG-29 fighters and Su-24 ground attack aircraft – from the Al Jufra Air Base in Libya. At least two Fulcrums were shot down since then.
The best-known and the most infamous PMC in the world – Academi (ex-Xe, ex-Blackwater) is possibly the most advanced in terms of their aerial capabilities. Although they (at least officially) do not employ fighter jets or attack helicopters, the company has its own airfield in Florida, owns several aviation companies – including Aviation Worldwide Services and Presidential Airways – and has subsidiaries involved in aircraft research and development. The majority of its airborne assets are focused on transport and surveillance – such as the independently developed Polar-400 airship, whose lavish publicity campaign still harks back to the time when the company did not try to hide all its activities. But Academi also owns a fleet of Embraer EMB 314 Super Tucano light ground attack aircraft, well-suited for close ground support.
In 2017, Eric Prince, former CEO and founder of Blackwater, made the headlines by offering Afghanistan to replace their air force with his new security firm, Lancaster6, boasting – in addition to an assortment of reconnaissance and transport aircraft – A-4 Skyhawk light attack jets and Aérospatiale Gazelle helicopters. Afghanistan did not agree and it is unclear whether the aircraft were ever purchased, but for a brief time, the troubled Central Asian country seemed like the first one to replace an entire branch of their military with a private company.
Both A-4s and Super Tucanos, amongst other light ground attack planes such as L-39 Albatros, surface time and time again in the context of PMCs. They are relatively cheap, easy to operate, and accessible. If jet-powered, they require just a little modification to be almost as capable as real 4th generation fighter jets, and can pretend to be ones in the setting of military exercises.
Those exercises are an area where private air forces really shine. Their golden age started in the mid-to-late 2000s when private companies began offering adversary support to the U.S. military.
At the height of the Cold War, both the U.S. Navy and Air Force had squadrons dedicated to imitating an enemy for the purpose of practice. All the major air forces in the world had something like that – pilots who would fly in a foreign manner, using foreign-made aircraft or their domestic substitutes in simulated battles. Known as Adversary Air Support (AAS) or simply “red air”, this type of service became largely unnecessary after the end of the Cold War.
As the international situation started heating up, an interest in AAS emerged within NATO, but capabilities were long gone. That is when the U.S. military turned to the commercial sector. First companies, offering to fly foreign jets in mock dogfights, started popping up around 2000. In the two following decades, the market simply exploded.
In 2019, the U.S. Air Force signed a $6.4 billion contract with seven PMCs for provision of red air services. Sporting impressive air-to-air and air-to-ground capabilities with a staff of veteran fighter pilots and fleets of slightly dated combat airplanes, those firms arguably brandish the heaviest firepower ever wielded by a private entity.
One of the oldest and most intimidating is Airborne Tactical Advantage Company (ATAC), a subsidiary of Textron conglomerate. For a long time, their poster child was IAI F-21 Kfir, a slightly modified Israeli fighter based on Dassault Mirage 5. A wing of ATAC Kfirs is still operational, in addition to a dozen of Hawker hunters and several L-39s. But in 2017, the company got its largest upgrade yet, purchasing over 60 Dassault Mirage F1 fighters from the French Air Force, refurbishing and upgrading them, and offering for adversary support.
Two dozens of Mirage F1s are also flown by another famous defense company, Draken International. Together with Atlas Cheetahs, A-4s, L-159s, Mig-21s, and several other models, it claims to operate the world’s largest commercial fleet of combat aircraft in addition to offering transport and refueling services.
There is also Air USA, who purchased 46 Australian F/A-18 Hornets in 2020 to supplement their MiG-29s, AlphaJets and BAE Hawks. As well as Top Aces, who bought 29 F-16s from an unknown vendor earlier the same year. Tactical Air Support, the first company to start operating Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker, is also worth a mention (although they have switched to Northrop F-5s and their Canadian versions CF-5D).
There is a whole slew of smaller companies, with several L-39s, A-4s, or Tucanos in their inventory. They – along with the giants listed above – offer air-to-ground capabilities for exercises where forward air controllers and other personnel train to direct airstrikes. Smaller airplanes also sometimes imitate cruise or anti-ship missiles during naval training, engage in electronic warfare simulations, or offer dozens of other possible combat roles that NATO militaries may need in their exercises, but deem too expensive to procure themselves.
Although all training-oriented military firms tend to operate older jets, retired from the world’s militaries, and bought for a bargain price in comparison with the latest aircraft, their main goal is to offer adequate support. Hence, airplanes are often equipped with the newest avionics, communication, targeting, and electronic warfare systems money can buy. Obviously, they conduct CAS missions without armament and the fighters are often disarmed, but air-to-ground training quite often involves the use of live ammunition, prompting companies to brandish destructive capabilities of their airplanes.