Although it could be guessed, the opening wave of the air strikes in Syria included a mix of stealth and conventional planes. Among them, there were also F-15E Strike Eagles that, although far from being radar-evading, can carry more weaponry than the F-22s that, according to official sources, employed only two 1,000-lb GBU-32 GPS-guided JDAMs (Joint Direct Attack Munitions).
So, were the F-22s really necessary?
Yes and no.
For sure the air strikes take place well inside an airspace still guarded by Syrian air defense radars and surface to air missile batteries, where Syrian planes involved in their domestic war against rebels, usually operate. Moreover it’s quite difficult to assess the current state of the Syrian air defenses (some equipment was seized by rebels, other systems were probably restored or being restored, others may be in the hands of some groups, etc.) and, considered that it seems these first strikes were not aimed at the Syrian anti-aircraft equipment, it’s safe to say they can still theoretically pose a threat to U.S. and allied airplanes. Do you remember what happened to the Turkish RF-4E shot down by Syrian anti-aircraft artillery fire a couple of years ago?
Even if any sort of reaction by some of these Syrian air defenses was and still is quite unlikely, stealth planes, supported by EW (Electronic Warfare) platforms, could be used to attack targets close to SAM batteries and other dangerous spots.
Hence, the F-22 Raptor stealth fighters were useful because of their ability to enter, mostly undetected, an anti-access target aerea, gather details about the enemy systems with their extremely advanced onboard sensors, escort other unstealthy planes and, last but not least, attack their own targets with JDAMs.
In recent exercises, F-22s flew dual missions that they will probably fly over Syria as well: HVAAE (High Value Air Asset Escort) and air-to-surface, providing the capability to perform an immediate restrike on the same target (or one nearby), if needed.
Moreover, the U.S. has invested a lot in the F-22 Raptor and the U.S. Air Force has worked so much in the last few years to turn the troubled, expensive interceptor into a real multi-role platform that could be eventually used in a real operation.
And it must not be forgotten that recent conflicts have always been a marketing opportunity” to “advertise” and/or test old and new weapons systems; in this case it was also the chance to appease those who criticised the costly stealth plane and the fact it was never used in combat (until yesterday).
It won’t be easy to strike all ISIS positions in Syria and Iraq. But the U.S. has already amassed several “useful” weapons systems in the region.
Last year, when the U.S. (and France) seemed to be about to launch air strikes on Syria and its chemical weapons, we explained that the air campaign would probably be a limited air war, opened by the usual rain of cruise missiles shot by warships, submarines and bombers with little to no involvement of the so-called “tacair”, the tactical airplanes.
13 months later, the scenario has changed a bit.
Several F-15E Strike Eagles and F/A-18E/F Super Hornets carrying their PGMs (Precision Guided Munitions), are already flying over Iraq hitting ISIS targets five times a day, and they prepare to expand their mission to attack terrorist targets located in Syria.
Whilst last year there was no sign of imminent deployment of F-15s, F-16s or F-18s squadrons to airfields across the region, several warplanes, along with support assets (including tankers and ISR – Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance – platforms) are not only in place, but they are also flying daily missions over Iraq since July.
Since U.S. planes are already freely flying inside Iraqi airspace, it is quite likely they will continue to do so to perform surgical attacks on ISIS targets in Iraq. The aircraft are deployed to Al Udeid, Qatar, and Al Dhafra, UAE, but they could also count of Jordan airbases, some of which already host some U.S. Marine Corps F/A-18 Hornets and Air Force F-16s.
On the other side, Syrian targets will be more difficult to hit: unless Washington will be allowed to use Syria’s airspace any incursion could theoretically require plenty of Electronic Warfare cover and SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defense) support to make Syrian Air Defense harmless. In other words, the unathorized use of Damascus airspace would not be cost-effective along with causing diplomatic issues, as it would require the U.S. to fight a war against Syria (by blinding or destroying Syrian radars and SAM – Surface to Air Missile – batteries) and against ISIS in Syria. And don’t forget that some Syrian Arab Air Air Force planes are fighting their war against local rebels and this raises two issues: deconfliction with SyAAF planes and the risk of being shot down by MANPADS (Man Portable Air Defense Systems) or other Anti-Aircraft weaponry in the hands of the Free Syrian Army.
A more clandestine approach is probably ahead, with a war made of drone strikes, stand-off weapons, and some limited stealth air strikes.
Dealing with drones, as said, they are already operating in Iraq, hence, they could extend their current mission to perform Strike Coordination And Reconnaissance missions in or close to Syria from Incirlik, in Turkey, that has been used as a drone forward operating base, for several years.
Cruise missiles could be fired U.S. destroyers theoretically capable to launch up to 90 Tomahawks Tactical Cruise Missiles as the USS Cole, currently in the Sixth fleet area of operations.
Some more cruise missiles could be fired by U.S. strategic bombers that would perform some global reach, round trip missions from the US (as well as from Diego Garcia): for sure, B-2 Spirit stealth bombers‘ r/t sorties from Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, to be followed by some more B-1 air strikes as done during the Libya Air War in 2011, and possibly B-52 ones.
High flying U-2 Dragon Lady aircraft and Global Hawk drones flying from Incirlik, Sigonella or Al Dhafra are already getting the required imagery and will perform the post-strike BDA (Battle Damage Assessment) should the need arise.
Some of them are well described in the book The Sword of David – The Israeli Air Force at War, written by Donald McCarthy.
According to McCarthy, who served in the U.S. Air Force from 1964 to 1968 before becoming a respected and well informed historian, the information for Operation Orchard is alleged to have come from Ali Reza Asgari, an Iranian general disappeared in February 2007, who may have been the source of the intelligence required by the Syrian nuclear site attack.
After gathering the required details, the Israelis planned a secret mission that was launched on Sept. 6 2007, at night.
McCarthy points out the fact that Syria as well as other Arab countries were equipped with advanced Russian air defense systems, such as the Pantsir-S1 (SA-22 Greyhound as reported by NATO designation), claimed to be immune to electronic jamming. At the time of Operation Orchard, Syria operated twenty nine of these advanced air defense systems, so it remains unclear how the IAF aircraft flew undetected into the night sky out over the Mediterranean Sea, across the Euphrates River and along their route to the nuclear facility.
As explained by McCarthy, according to the most widely accepted theory the strike force included one or more Gulfstream G550 aircraft, equipped with the IAI Elta EL/W-2085 radar system.
Indeed, the success of the operation was largely attributed to effectiveness of the Israeli Electronic Warfare platforms that supported the air strike and made the Syrian radars blind: some sources believe that Operation Orchard saw the baptism of fire of the Suter airborne network system against Syrian radar systems.
This system, combined with the F-15Is electronic warfare capabilities, shut down Syrian air defense systems, providing the other airplanes the cover they needed to hit and destroy the Dir A-Zur nuclear plant.
After the attack, the initial reports stated that the IAF aircraft had almost entirely destroyed the nuclear site, claims that were also confirmed by the comparison of pre and post-attack satellite imagery.
Even if the incident was shrouded in secrecy, Turkish media outlets reported that external fuel tanks were found on the ground not far away from the Syrian border: as reported by Shlomo Aloni & Zvi Avidror in their book Hammers Israel’s Long-Range Heavy Bomber Arm: The Story of 69 Squadron, these external fuel tanks were identified by foreign press as belonging to F-15 aircraft.
RF 13-3 is the first to include real-time intelligence by ISR platforms thanks to the involvement of the Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency, via its 526th Intelligence Squadron.
Indeed, the 526th IS has developed a scenario with realistic environment for ISR platform to collect against, that includes enemy communication tactics and procedures.
Among the most interesting platforms taking part to the exercise is an MC-12W that, just like RF 12-3 last year, supports ground forces tracking high-value and time-sensitive targets, including people, as well as provide tactical intelligence and airborne command and control for air-to-ground operations.
Considered the amount of Aggressors launched during the sorties I’ve witnessed, I strongly believed that, compared to 12-3, the air threats were sensibly higher: last year the MC-12W at their first RF were used in a “permissive” scenario, with limited risk to be intercepted by enemy planes.
Such scenario was probably made a bit more difficult with enemy fighter planes (and need to rely on huge escort, that included F-22 Raptor stealth fighters).
EC-130H, EP-3, RC-135 are among the other interesting assets, both providing Electronic Warfare capabilities to the RF participants; SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defense) planes include U.S. Navy E/A-18G Growlers, U.S. Marine Corps EA-6B Prowlers and U.S. Air Force F-16CJ aircraft.
The Royal Australian Air Force deployed to Nellis two E-7 AEW (Airborne Early Warning) aircraft, while UK’s Royal Air Force is taking part to the RF 13-3 with both the Tornado GR4 and the Typhoon FGR4.
Other participating weapon systems include the F-15E (from the 48th FW based at RAF Lakenheath) and the 53rd Wing’s F-15C, the 509th BW B-2 Spirit, and support assets (E-3s and KC-135s among the others).
Australian minister for Defence Stephen Smith and minister for Defence Material Jason Clare have announced that the Australian Government has decided to acquire the “Growler” electronic warfare system for Royal Australian Air Force Super Hornet fleet of 24 jets.
The Growler system allows the Super Hornet to jam the electronic systems of aircraft and land based radar and communications.
The deal worth some 1.5 billion USD will mark out Australia as the only country outside of the U.S. to operate the EA-18G Growler system.
Of the 24 jets that Australia has procured, 12 are already wired for the Growler system: in May 2009, the Government announced its decision to wire half of its “Rhinos” (actually, this is the Super Hornet nickname within the U.S. Navy fighter pilot community) for potential conversion to the Growler configuration.
The Growlers will be operational from 2018, the purchase of the equipment is being made through the United States Foreign Military Sales process.
Although Lockheed Martin officials have criticized the choice (since the F-35, that Australia is committed to buying in up to 100 examples, will have some advanced electronic warfare capabilities), with a fleet of 12 EA-18Gs the RAAF has opted for a small but extremely effective force capable to perform of Electronic Warfare/Electronic Attack as well as SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defense) missions, few other non-US nations can rely on.