Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Stealth Over Syria or When You Put It That Way

America's F-22 Raptor stealth fighter is reportedly being flown in Syrian airspace. That could bring America's top stealth warplane into dangerous proximity to Russia's "stealth killer" air defence missiles, the S400 and S300V4 surface to air batteries.

Like the American mongoose to Russia's cobra, the F-22 pilots contend that if the US does start a campaign against Assad's forces, the Raptor pilots first job would be to take out those Russian missiles, supposedly the very best in the world.  Best in the world stealth fighter versus best in the world surface to air missiles.

The stealthy supersonically cruising air superiority fighters are the only fighters in the U.S. inventory that can safely fly within the engagement envelope of Russian S-400 and S300V4 surface-to-air missiles defense while the Pentagon ascertains how the Kremlin will respond to the American cruise missile attack on Syria last week. Indeed, the stealthy fighters would likely play an outsized role in suppressing those Russian missile batteries if the White House chooses to expand its campaign against the Syrian regime led by Bashar al-Assad which can operate in airspace where older conventional jets can’t.

But while F-22 pilots are confident about the Raptor’s ability to defeat the S-300V4 and the S-400, the Air Force official acknowledged that the stealthy fifth-generation aircraft has never faced off against these next-generation Russian air defenses in actual combat before. The Air Force is not 100 percent sure if the Russians have the capability to attack the Raptor or F-35—as the Russians have often claimed.

It would be a pretty gutsy call to challenge the Russian missile batteries with American stealth fighters. What if the Russians are right? What if their missiles can down the best stealth technology America has on offer? The F-35 isn't nearly as stealthy as the F-22 and it follows that, if the Russians can shoot down the F-22, that huge stealth advantage that Lockheed relies on to market the F-35 could take a big hit with the Pentagon and with foreign buyers. Which may be why others are saying the way to deal with the Russian defences is with cruise missiles. 

Airpower analysts too agreed that the Russian air defenses would be a serious problem during the early stages of any air campaign. “Initially, they would be a significant problem. If airstrikes launched on Syrian forces—which is still a big if—their air defenses would be among the first targets attacked,” Mark Gunzinger, a former B-52 pilot and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments told The National Interest shortly before last week’s cruise missile strike. “Cruise missiles such as Tomahawks and JASSMs would probably be used to surprise S-400s and S-300V4s. There may be little need to use manned aircraft them against these threats, especially when other options exist to suppress them. I also suggest that an initial wave of standoff strikes would be launched by U.S. bombers operating from CONUS bases. That would reduce the likelihood—however remote—of counterstrikes against regional airbases used by U.S. forces, plus it would reduce political friction with regional partners hosting US air forces who would have to grant permission for offensive operations against Syria's military. Of course, F-22s and B-2s would have significant roles to play, especially if an operation was intended to be more than a short, sharp, shock.”

Meanwhile, the Russians have long claimed that they can detect, track and engage stealth aircraft such as the F-22 and F-35. However, it is difficult to gauge the accuracy of the Russian claims. “I do not know what will be the exact performance of the Russian SAM systems in this particular situation—I think it is hard to tell now,” Russian defense and foreign policy expert Vasily Kashin, a professor at Moscow's Higher School of Economics (HSE) told The National Interest. “Russians claim that the long-range SAM can shoot down stealth planes, although the range could be reduced. Pantsir systems are primarily against missiles and bombs not the planes carrying them and they will act as the second line of defense. But this is a minor issue. In this case we will have a war and there will be cruise missile attacks against the U.S. forces across the Middle East and then it will escalate to a full scale war.

There are potentially hundreds of billions of dollars in Lockheed sales at stake in a showdown between the F-22 and the S400.  America has been reaping the stealth dividend for years, claiming that it alone can assert air superiority in any corner of the world. So why would it risk a high stakes, winner take all, contest in the skies over Syria especially when ground hugging American cruise missiles can probably do the job at much less cost and infinitely less risk. Then again, if the Pentagon uses old technology cruise missiles for the job instead of its state of the art, supposedly invincible, stealth fighter it could encourage Lockheed customers to question why they shouldn't just buy cruise missiles and pocket the change.


Toby said...

It seems that modern warfare is catering to wealthy arms suppliers as opposed to military strategists.

Eventually some sharp techie will hack into a Cruise missile and take control. Oops!

Anonymous said...

This wiener wagging is at the same time interesting and distressing.
Distressing in that there is no need for the hostilities and interesting in that many time over , super weapons have proved to be faulty.
During Vietnam, air to air missiles used by the USA had a success rate of one in two hundred!
During the first Gulf war it was about one in twenty.
The F18 was so unsuccessful it is not allowed to confront adversaries in air to air combat; indeed the F18 was shot down by a MIG 21 and a MIG 25.

It will be ,again, tragic if we send our young men and women to fight wars that only benefit the likes of the armaments companies whilst the politicians that send them protect their own children from combat.

My somewhat educated guess is that a limited confrontation between the USA and Russia will soon end with the disapproval of the masses, a stark realization that no one has technical superiority,and the financial ruin of both parties.