- The US and Russia’s top fighter jets have their first run-in in the skies above Syria, and the incident favored the Russian jet if combat were to break out.
- The US’s F-22 doesn’t visibly store weapons, and it relies on stealth, so coming face to face with an advanced Russian fighter puts it at a disadvantage.
- Most incidents in the skies involving the US are communicated in advance and handled professionally, but the rules of engagement leave the US vulnerable to a first strike.
Two US F-22 stealth fighter jets intercepted Russian Su-25 and Su-35 jets that crossed into the US’s area of operation over Syria on Wednesday, and it highlights the downside to the US’s top fighter jets.
The F-22, with its incredible acrobatic abilities in air and all-aspect stealth cloaking it from enemies at a distance, is the US’s most lethal combat plane.
While the F-35 has been built as a flying quarterback that can dogfight, bomb ground targets, gather intelligence, or conduct surveillance, the F-22 specializes in one thing – air-to-air combat.
But with today’s rules of engagement, the F-22’s huge advantages in stealth mean little.
During an intercept, a jet flies up next to the plane that’s invaded its airspace, and tells the plane via radio some version of “turn around or this will escalate.”
At this time, it’s customary for the jet to tilt its wings and show the intruding adversary a wing full of missiles. But the F-22 can never do that. Because of its stealth design, the F-22 stores all missiles and bombs internally.
A Russian pilot intruding into US or US-protected airspace and meeting an F-22 really has no idea if the jet is armed or not. Meanwhile, the Russian Su-35 holds more missiles than the F-22 in certain loadouts, and it holds them where everyone can see.
On top of that, if a routine interception were to turn kinetic, the F-22 would start the battle at a huge disadvantage.
Stealth advantage negated
F-22s rely on stealth and establishing the battle on its own terms. When the enemy jet can’t tell where the F-22 is, the F-22 pilot’s preferred course of action is to dictate the entire battle and likely score a kill without ever being seen.
If a fight started during an intercept, the Russian pilot has started with the huge advantage of having the F-22 in their sights. What’s more, the Russian Su-35 can actually maneuver better than the F-22.
Lt. Col. David “Chip” Berke, the only US Marine to fly both the F-22 and the F-35, previously told Business Insider that when flying the F-22, “my objective wouldn’t be to get in a turning fight” with an adversary. Instead, Berke said he would use the F-22s natural advantages of stealth to avoid the dogfight.
But just because Russia’s Su-35 can turn better and has more missiles doesn’t mean it would automatically win a dogfight that broke out from an interception. The capabilities of the F-22 and its pilots, who stand among the Air Force’s best, would surely put up a fight.
Because of the F-22’s internal weapons stores and reliance on stealth, Justin Bronk, an expert on combat airpower at the Royal United Services Institute, previously told Business Insider that for interceptions “fifth-gen fighters [like the F-22 or F-35] are not really necessary for that … other, cheaper interceptors can do the job.”
The real risk
In reality, conflicts in the airspace above Syria between US and Russian jets get handled all the time, but not with jets. The US and Russia maintain a deconfliction line, and call each other constantly to alert the other side to inbound jets.
But the rules of engagement, as they stand, put the US’s top fighter jet at a distinct disadvantage if the worst happened and a dogfight broke out between the world’s top military powers over Syria.