- The US’s and Russia’s top fighter jets recently ran into each other in the skies near Alaska – and had combat broken out, the Russian jet would have been favoured.
- The US’s F-22 doesn’t visibly store weapons and relies on stealth, so coming face-to-face with an advanced Russian fighter would put 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.
US F-22 stealth fighter jets intercepted Russian Tu-95 nuclear-capable bombers and Su-35 fighters that approached Alaska on Tuesday, and it highlights a downside to the US’s top fighter jets.
The F-22, with its incredible acrobatic abilities in the air and all-aspect stealth cloaking it from enemies at a distance, is the US’s most lethal combat plane.
While the F-35 was built as a flying quarterback that can dogfight, bomb ground targets, gather intelligence, or conduct surveillance, the F-22 specialises 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 pulls up next to the plane that has 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 intruder a wing full of missiles. But the F-22 could never do that; because of its stealth design, the F-22 stores all missiles and bombs internally.
A pilot intruding into US or US-protected airspace who meets an F-22 really has no idea whether the jet is armed. The Russian Su-35 holds more missiles than the F-22, 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
If a fight were to start during an intercept like the one this week, the Russian pilot would have the huge advantage of having the F-22 in sight. What’s more, the Russian Su-35 can manoeuvre better than the F-22.
Retired Lt. Col. David “Chip” Berke, the only US Marine to fly both the F-22 and the F-35, previously told Business Insider that with 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-22’s 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 of its pilots, who stand among the Air Force’s best, would surely give it a chance in such a fight.
Justin Bronk, an expert on combat airpower at the Royal United Services Institute, previously told Business Insider that fifth-generation fighters like the F-22, with its internal weapons stores and reliance on stealth, and the F-35 were “not really necessary” for interceptions and that “other, cheaper interceptors can do the job.”
The real risk
The US frequently intercepts Russian jets that fly near US airspace, and it almost always happens in a safe and professional way. The US and Russia have their differences and today have building tensions due to conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, but a fight between the world’s two greatest nuclear powers wouldn’t be a decision taken lightly.
In Syria, where Russian and US jets operate in close quarters, the two maintain a deconfliction line and call each other to alert the other side to inbound jets to avoid clashes.
But the way the US Air Force designed the F-22 to get its kills from concealment and at a great distance puts it at a disadvantage when performing a possibly contentious intercept.
Bronk told Business Insider that for that reason, the F-15, an older jet, would make a better interceptor.
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