Needless to say, stealth does not mean “invisible”…
The above image was posted by the National Police Air Service helicopter serving the South West of England.
It’s a screenshot from the thermal camera used by the EC-135 of the NPAS, based at Filton Aerodrome, west of Swindon, and shows one of the U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor jets that deployed to RAF Fairford to take part in the Royal International Air Tattoo airshow, on the ground, at RAF Fairford, UK.
The photo is somehow funny, as it depicts the stealth 5th generation jet more or less as it would look like in a combat flight simulator, and interesting, because the IR camera caught the parked Raptor’s heat signature more or less in the same way an infra-red search and track (IRST) systems would perform passive detection of a radar evading plane.
In fact, F-22s and other stealth planes have literally no (or extremely little) radar cross-section (RCS) but they do have an IR signature. This means that they can be vulnerable to small, fast non-stealthy planes that feature low observable coatings and using their IRST sensors, hi-speed computers and interferometry, to geo-locate enemy LO (low observability) aircraft.
Indeed, there are certain scenarios in which IRST and other tactics could greatly reduce the advantage provided by radar invisibility and this is one of the reasons why USAF has fielded IRST pods to Aggressors F-16s in the latest Red Flags as proved by shots of the Nellis’s Vipers carrying the Lockheed Martin’s AN/AAS-42.
According to some pilots who have fought against the F-22, the IRST can be extremely useful to detect “large and hot stealth targets” like the F-22 (or the even hotter F-35) during mock aerial engagements at distances up to 50 km. Anyway, that’s another story.
For the moment enjoy a cool and unsual shot of the Raptor, that has been one of the highlights of this year’s RIAT.
Air Combat in the F-35, a new chapter in the saga.
In March 2016, we published an article written by Major Morten “Dolby” Hanche, a Royal Norwegian Air Force experienced pilot with more than 2,200 hours in the F-16, a U.S. Navy Test Pilot School graduate and the first to fly the F-35.
In that post “Dolby” provided a first-hand account of what dogfighting in the controversial F-35 looked like to a pilot who had a significant experience with the F-16.
Here below, reposted under permission, you can read the latest story “Dolby” has written for Kampflybloggen (The Combat Aircraft Blog), the official blog of the Norwegian F-35 Program Office within the Norwegian Ministry of Defence.
Although it’s written by someone with a bias for the plane (he flies the F-35 as the Assistant Weapons Officer with the 62nd Fighter Squadron at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona), once again it’s worth a read as it provides some interesting details about the way the Lightning II performs during mock air combat against several adversaries.
Someone may argue the A-4 Skyhawks are quite obsolete aircraft and not even comparable with modern 4th generation enemies. True, but these are the same aggressors that train many modern combat planes (don’t forget the F-22s practice their air-to-air skills against the T-38s) and take part in Red Flag exercises.
To summarize what has been written about the F-35 dogfighting capabilities in the past:
at the same time we also highlighted that the simulated dogfight mentioned in the unclassified report obtained by War Is Boring according to which the JSF was outclassed by a two-seat F-16D Block 40 (one of the aircraft the U.S. Air Force intends to replace with the Lightning II) in mock aerial combat involved one of the very first test aircraft that lacked some cool and useful features.
Needless to say, each of the above news stories caused much debate, with many analysts suggesting the exercises where the F-35 performed fairly well were just PR stunts arranged in such a way the JSF could not be downed, and others claiming more or less the opposite.
Whatever you think, here’s the new story by “Dolby.”
Air Combat in the F-35 – an update
In this post I’m giving a brief overview of my impressions after having flown several sorties over the past few weeks against A-4 Skyhawks. This post is intended as a supplement to my previous posts on modern air combat and stealth.
First thing first – is it relevant to train air combat against an old A-4? Can we draw any relevant lessons from this at all? After all, this is an aircraft that served during the Vietnam war!
I believe this kind of training is relevant for several reasons:
The F-35’s sensors and “fusion” provides me as a pilot with good situational awareness. For an F-35 to simulate an opponent against another F-35, it has to restrict the effects of fusion and the various sensors. Even then it is difficult to “dumb down” the aircraft enough. It requires discipline to not be tempted to using information that an opponent in reality would not have access to.
The A-4s we faced in these exercises had sensor performance along the lines of our own upgraded F-16s. They also carried jammers intended to disturb our radar.
The pilots we faced were very experienced. We are talking 2000 hours plus in aircraft like the F-16, F-15E, F-15C and the F-22, with detailed knowledge of “fifth generation” tactics and weapons. When also cooperating closely with intercept controllers on the ground (GCI) they could adapt the training and offer us a reactive and challenging opponent. Note the word “reactive.”
The A-4 is a small aircraft with a corresponding signature. Many potential opponents in the air are bigger and easier to find than the tiny A-4.
So what did I experience in my encounters with the A-4? I got to try out several different sets. (Everything from one-on-one “Basic Fighter Maneuvers” to one F-35 against two A-4s, two F-35s against two A-4s, two F-35s against four A-4s and three F-35s against four A-4s). I am left with some main impressions.
The individual sensors of the F-35, one for one, are good. I flew one sortie alone against two A-4s, and limited myself to using only the radar during these sets (no support from ground controllers, no Link-16, no data sharing from other formation members, no support from passive radar warning systems or IFF – Identification Friend or Foe). Nonetheless my radar detected the targets in time for me to optimize my intercept, deliver weapons at range, and if necessary, arrive undetected to the visual arena.
“Fusion” means both automatic control of the various sensors, and the combination of all different sensor data into one unified tactical picture. I believe “fusion” to be one of the most important aspects of the F-35. “Fusion” allows me to focus on the tactics, rather than detailed management of my sensors. In my encounters with the A-4s, “fusion” worked better than I have seen it before. It was reassuring to see how well it worked. The good «situational picture» that I saw provides us with several advantages; we can make smarter tactical decisions, and it takes less time before we can gain full “tactical value” from fresh pilots. (I had to smile a little when two of us in the F-35s effortlessly kept tabs on four opponents. That is no trivial thing in the F-16.)
The most important lesson for me personally was to see just how hard it was for the A-4s to find us, even with GCI support. We deliberately made high-risk tactical decisions to see just how far we could stretch our luck, and still remain undetected. At least for my part, this reinforced my confidence in the effectiveness of our tactics. I hope all my colleagues in the F-35 get to have the same experience as I have.
(BFM – F-35 against A-4, might not be fair. Still, the A-4 started as the offensive part every time. At the end of each set, I was pointing at the A-4. Every time.)
The Raptor deployment had already been announced in June, when Air Force Secretary, at Le Bourget airshow in Paris, said that Russia was the “biggest threat” her mind, but it now appears to be few days away.
So far the U.S. has responded to the proxy war in Ukraine and to the spike in Russia Air Force activity in the Baltic region with two 6-month TSPs (Theater Security Packages), made up of F-15s and A-10s, and stepping up its presence at regional exercises with NATO allies and partners, attended also by B-52 strategic bombers and A-10 attack planes.
Raptors have often taken part in rotational deployments in the Asia-Pacific region since 2009, but have never been deployed to Europe. It would be interesting to know which airbases are being considered for such deployment that should include 12 aircraft and 200-300 support personnel even though the aircraft will probably not be stationed at a single base but will perform short rotations to a few airports in eastern Europe as already done by the F-15s and A-10s of the previous TSPs (that have visited Germany, UK, Poland, Estonia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, etc.).
However, according to the U.S. Air Force, during the air campaign against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, the once troubled stealth plane has emerged as F-22 is pivotal to ensure the safety of the other aircraft involved in the air campaign: the Raptors act as “electronic warfare enabled sensor-rich multi-role aircraft” that provide key kinetic situational awareness to other aircraft: they escort strike packages into and out of the target area while gathering details about the enemy systems and spreading intelligence to other “networked” assets supporting the mission to improve the overall situational awareness.
Most probably, not. However, the artworks are interesting.
Although China is known to be working also on a new stealth fighter bomber, we don’t know much about the H-20, as the aircraft is believed to be dubbed.
The long-range strike aircraft should be built around the concept of a subsonic, radar evading, flying wing configuration and some scale models have even appeared at aviation exhibitions.
While previous artworks depicted shapes of Beijing’s LRS (long-range strike) inspired to several existing U.S. planes, including the F-117 Nighthawk, the YF-23 and the B-2, a new image has recently popped up on the prolific Chinese Internet.
It shows a manned tactical plane, with internal weapons bay as well as external pylons which carry stand-off missiles. The cockpit reminds the one of the Soviet-era Su-24 Fencer, a side-by-side two-seater.
The “new” shape seems like an evolution of previous concepts, even though it may well be just fan art.
Last but not least, the new stealth bomber is depicted as flying over the disputed Senkaku islands.
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 give 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.