The most sophisticated and expensive warplane in the US arsenal joins assault against foe with minimal anti-air capacity
25-09-2014 - New York
It took an air war against a foe with minimal aerial defenses to bring the US air force’s most advanced warplane into combat.
The F-22 Raptor, a stealth fighter jet as star-crossed as it is beloved by the air force, finally took to the skies in anger on Monday night. It joined its more seasoned cousins the F-15 and F-16, as well as the B-1 bomber and armed drones in attacking Islamic State (Isis) training camps, barracks, headquarters and vehicles in north and eastern Syria.
But Isis is hardly the foe that the architects, advocates and congressional allies of the F-22 anticipated the plane fighting.
The F-22 is the air combat version of a luxury vehicle. While it carries air-to-ground missiles and guided bombs capable of precision placement from miles away – something the air force believes makes it a replacement close-air support jet for the infantryman’s best friend, the A-10 – the F-22’s air-to-air missiles and radar-evading stealth gear it to fighting through heavily defended skies above advanced adversaries.
On the ground, Isis may be perhaps the most formidable jihadist army yet, but Russia or China it is not. Its anti-air artillery, usually mounted on trucks or in the form of shoulder-fired missiles, has not been effective, according to US Central Command, even on the sporadic accounts they’ve been fired at all. And Isis anti-air guns are often targeting Predator drones, a slow, low-flying and poorly maneuverable plane – nothing comparable to the supersonic Raptor.
Still, Isis has latched on to territory within Syria, whose government does maintain Russian-made anti-aircraft batteries and its own fighter jets. Most of them are believed to be along the Mediterranean coast, far from eastward Isis positions, and with the US providing notification to the Syrian government ahead of Monday’s strike, it’s unclear if dictator Bashar al-Assad intends to interfere with a US air campaign against a mutual foe. Lt Gen William Mayville, the Pentagon joint staff’s operations director, said Monday that Syrian air defense radar were in “passive” mode when US warplanes struck.
With the presence of the other US warplanes and the absence of advanced air defenses, “we didn’t really use [the F-22] because the mission required it,” said Christopher Harmer, a former navy aviator now with the Institute for the Study of War.
For a program that may cost as much as $67bn – calculating the price per plane is tricky, but it’s in nine figures – the F-22 has yet to deliver on its promises.
Attempting to put a lid on its spiraling expenses, former Pentagon chief Bob Gates in 2009 capped the F-22 fleet at 187 planes (a decision, ironically, that hastened development of an even more expensive family of jets, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter). Yet technological difficulties have marred the jet for years – most crucially a scary flaw with its oxygen systems that resulted in pilot blackouts and deaths, and left the whole fleet grounded in 2011 twice. The airforce appears to have retaliated against the pilots who exposed the so-called “hypoxia” problem.
But the F-22 is perhaps the air force’s most prized fighter jet, despite missing every combat engagement since it entered the active airfleet in 2007. Even as its Predators and Reapers have become the signature airframe of America’s protracted ground wars and shadow battlefields against terrorism, the Raptor appeals to the air force’s culture of audacious manned – which may explain why the service ensured it would be on-hand in the Middle East for the Syria conflict.
Mayville’s explanation: “What we were looking at was the effects we wanted to see on the target areas, and what platforms in the region would be best suited to do that. We had a large menu of targets to strike from and we chose from there.”
The air force is hoping Monday night’s Syria strikes are an auspicious beginning for the combat career of a fighter jet that best reflects the future the service’s leadership wants.
But with the initial onslaught of Syria strikes encompassing so many warplanes and missiles, which Harmer called a “kind of a weird hybrid strike of a bit of everything”, one reason to use the F-22, the former pilot explained, “is to justify the weapons system”.