U.S. Navy aircraft, launched from USS George H.W. Bush are taking part in the air strikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
On Aug. 8, the U.S. military launched the first targeted airstrike against ISIS terrorists. The raid involved aircraft belonging to Carrier Air Wing 8 embarked on USS George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier.
Two months later, F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, F/A-18C “Legacy” Hornet as well as EA-6B Prowler jets, launched from the flight deck of the U.S. Navy nuclear flattop sailing in the Persian Gulf, are still taking part in the air campaign against ISIS in Iraq on a daily basis.
The images in this article show Hornets and Prowlers refueled mid-air from a U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker aerial refueler over Iraq. With minor modifications, both KC-135 and KC-10 are able to refuel Navy aircraft that, unlike Air Force combat planes (that have a receptacle for the flying boom), are equipped with a “probe” compatible with the so-called hose-and-drogue refueling system.
EA-6B from VAQ-134 are conducting electronic warfare missions; more or less what have been doing for several years in Afghanistan: they eavesdrop “enemy” radio signals and jam those frequencies in order to prevent terrorists from talking one another on the radio or use portable transmitters to trigger IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices).
The F/A-18Cs are instead used for bombing insurgents and wipe out their vehicles (or tanks) using JDAMs (Joint Direct Attack Munitions) or AGM-65 Maverick missiles. Interestingly, the configuration of all U.S. Navy Hornets (both C/D and E/F examples) is such they don’t carry any external store on the left wing inner pylon, in order to keep the ATFLIR (Advanced Targeting Forward Looking Infrared) pod point-of-view free from any obstacle.
As already explained, the radar-evading planes conducted air strikes against ISIS ground targets, in what (considering the 5th Generation plane’s capabilities) were probably Swing Role missions: the stealth jets flew ahead of the rest of the strike package to cover the other attack planes, dropped their Precision Guided Munitions (PGMs) on designated targets, and escorted the package during the way back.
Raptor’s stealthiness is maintained by storing weapons in internal bays capable to accomodate 2x AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles, some AIM-120C AMRAAM air-to-air missiles (the number depending on the configuration), as well as 2x 1,000 pound GBU-32 JDAM or 8x GBU-39 small diameter bombs: in this way the Raptor can dominate the airspace above the battlefield while performing OCA (Offensive Counter Air) role attacking air and ground targets. Moreover its two powerful Pratt & Whitney F-119-PW-100 engines gave to the fifth fighter the ability to accelerate past the speed of sound without using the afterburners (the so called supercruise) and TV (Thrust Vectoring), that can be extremely useful, in certain conditions, to put the Raptor in the proper position to score a kill.
These results were achieved also thanks to the specific training programs which put F-22 pilots against the best US fighters jocks in order to improve their abilities to use the jet’s sophisticated systems, make the most out of sensor fusion, then decide when and to execute the correct tactic.
The Raptor has a huge advantage against its adversaries as demonstrated by the F-22’s incredible kill ratio against USAF Red Air (which play as enemy air forces during exercises) and its F-16s and F-15s, during the exercises undertaken in the last decade: for instance, during exercise Noble Edge in Alaska in June 2006, few F-22s were able to down 108 adversaries with no losses, while during the 2007 edition of the same exercise, they brought their record to 144 simulated kills.
In its first Red Flag participation, in February 2007, the Raptor was able to establish air dominance rapidly and with no losses.
As reported by Dave Allport and Jon Lake in a story which appeared on Air Force Monthly magazine, during an Operational Readiness Inspection (ORI) in 2008, the F-22s scored 221 simulated kills without a single loss.
Still, when outnumbered and threatened by F-15s, F-16s and F-18s, in a simulated WVR (Within Visual Range) dogfight, the F-22 is not invincible.
Even though with don’t know anything about the ROE (Rules Of Engagement) set for that training sorties and, at the same time, the outcome of those mock air-to-air combat is still much debated (as there are different accounts of those simulated battles), the “F-22 vs Typhoon at RF-A” story, raised some questions about the threat posed to the Raptor by advanced, unstealthy, 4th Gen. fighter jets.
In fact, even though these aircraft are not stealth, Typhoons are equipped with Helmet Mounted Display (HMD) systems and IRST (the Infra-Red Search and Track), two missing features on Raptors.
The Typhoon’s HMD is called Helmet Mounted Symbology System (HMSS). Just like the American JHMCS (Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System) which is integrated in the U.S. F-15C/D, F-16 Block 40 and 50 and F-18C/D/E/F, HMSS provides the essential flight and weapon aiming information through line of sight imagery. Information imagery (including aircraft’s airspeed, altitude, weapons status, aiming etc) are projected on the visor (the HEA – Helmet Equipment Assembly – for the Typhoon) , enabling the pilot to look out in any direction with all the required data always in his field of vision.
The F-22 Raptor is not equipped with a similar system (the project to implement it was axed following 2013 budget cuts). The main reason for not using it on the stealth jet is that it was believed neither an HMD, nor HOBS (High Off-Boresight) weapons that are fired using these helmets, were needed since no opponents would get close enough to be engaged with an AIM-9X in a cone more than 80 degrees to either side of the nose of the aircraft.
Sure, but the risk of coming to close range with an opponent is still high and at distances up to 50 km an aircraft equipped with an IRST (Infra-Red Search and Track) system, which can detect the IR signature of an enemy fighter (that’s why Aggressors at Red Flag carry IRST pods….), could even be able to find a stealthy plane “especially if it is large and hot, like the F-22″ as a Eurofighter pilot once said.
Summing up, the F-22 is and remains the most lethal air superiority fighter ever. Still, it lacks some nice features that could be useful to face hordes of enemy aircraft, especially if these include F-15s, Typhoons, Rafales or, in the future, the Chinese J-20 and Russian PAK-FA.
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).
Even though the extent of their involvement was not disclosed, considered the scenario it is quite likely the Raptor stealth multi-role jets flew Swing Role missions: by exploiting their radar-evading capability, the F-22s probably flew high and fast to provide cover to the rest of the strike package during the ingress into the enemy airspace (in what is considered a typical OCA – Offensive Counter Air mission), then dropped their Precision Guided Munitions (PGMs) on designated targets, and escorted the package again during the egress and subsequent return to base.
With software increment 3.1 or higher, the F-22 can also drop 8 GBU-39 small diameter bombs, 250-lb multipurpose, insensitive, penetrating, blast-fragmentation warhead for stationary targets, equipped with deployable wings for extended standoff range. These bombs are particularly useful to improve accuracy and reduce collateral damage.
Indeed, the aircraft with the typical “FF” tail code were spotted in the images released by the DoD which showed some F-22s during mid-air refueling over the Persian Gulf in May. What we don’t know yet, is whether the initial detachment of six planes was joined by more planes due to the crisis.
Interestingly, in an interview given at the end of 2013, General Hawk Carlisle said 5th generation aircraft would provide forward target identification for strike missiles launched from a surface warship or submerged submarine, in the future. The PACAF commander described the ability of the F-22s, described as “electronic warfare enabled sensor-rich aircraft,” to provide forward targeting through their sensors for submarine based T-LAMS (cruise missiles). Although it’s quite unlikely that the U.S. Air Force has already implemented this capability, it’s not completely impossible that the aircraft were involved in a similar mission on Sept. 23, designating targets for T-LAMs launched by USS Arleigh Burke and USS Philippine Sea.
Join Norwegian Air Force pilot Morten Hanche, call-sign “Dolby” from the 338 Sqdn based at Ørland Main Air Station, Norway, on a training sortie featuring low flying, live firing activity and simulated attacks against the Navy ship.
Here’s an interesting video, shot from the cockpit of a Royal Norwegian Air Force (RNoAF) F-16A MLU from 338 Sqn, showing a mission flown with AIM-120B AMRAAM, AIM-2000 IRIS-T, GBU-54 JDAM from Ørland Main Air Station.
The mission features low level flying over Eikesdalvatnet, live firing of an IRIS-T against a Banshee drone over the Halten shootingrange, ultra-low level flying over the sea for a simulated attack on a warship, and return to base in formation with another “Viper.”
H/T to Matt Fanning and Lars-Gunnar Holmström for the heads-up