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Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Benefits of Stealth and Situational Awareness

Image 1: F-22 canopy

Robin Olds, an American triple ace who served in both World War II and Vietnam said, "The guy you don't see will kill you". One of the many conclusions made by the Red Baron project, an evaluation of the of the US air-to-air performance failures in Vietnam, reported the majority of American airmen who were shot down did not see their adversary until it was too late (Laslie, 2013). The principle that the enemy fighter pilot you do not see is often the most dangerous predates stealth technology, but stealth enables pilots of both the F-22 and F-35 to take advantage of this principle on a consistent basis.

While the F-22 is widely regarded as the most formidable fighter aircraft in service worldwide and Raptor pilots can clearly substantiate their claims with a 30:1 kill ratio in combat exercises, claims made by Lockheed Martin regarding the F-35's air-to-air capabilities often deemed to be illegitimate by critics (Trimble, 2012). A common technique among analysts in evaluating the effectiveness of a new proposed policy or system is to look to past historical examples that are in some way relevant or similar to the currently evaluated policy or system. In the case of the F-35, the F-22 is the most similar analogue in service. However, a number significant  issues arise when comparing the F-22 and F-35. Both aircraft were designed with very different objectives in mind, the F-22 was created first and foremost as an air-superiority fighter while the F-35 is a multi-mission capable strike fighter (Gertler, 2013). Many of the design features that distinguish the F-22 and F-35 from one another are attributable to either their different roles or the technology gap between the periods in which the aircraft were developed. Caveats aside, the comparison should still provide some insight as to the potential effectiveness of the F-35 as long as instances where the Raptor's superior maneuverability served as the deciding factor in engagements are acknowledged and accounted for. Two of the most important characteristics to the F-35's future success in the air-to-air role are shared with the Raptor, heightened situational awareness and stealth. Many accounts by pilots who have flown either against Raptors or in Raptors indicates the relevance of stealth and situational awareness in modern air-to-air combat (maneuverability will be subsequently be addressed).

In testimony before the Australian Parliament, RAAF Air Marshal Geoff Brown responded to maneuverability concerns raised by MP Dennis Jensen. Brown explained why the combination of stealth and heightened situational awareness were more relevant to future air to air engagements based upon his experience at Red Air against F-22's:

"In any practice engagement I have had in the last 20 years where I have turned with another aeroplane in a bigger picture environment – rather than the static one by ones, two by twos or four by fours – every time I have tried to do that I have ended up being shot by somebody else who actually is not in the fight. As soon as you enter a turning fight, your situational awareness actually shrinks down because the only thing you can be operating with is the aeroplane you are turning with. The person who has the advantage is the person who can stand off, watch the engagement and just pick you off at the time…the ability to actually have that data fusion that the aeroplane has makes an incredible difference to how you perform in combat. I saw it first hand on a Red Flag mission in an F-15D against a series of fifth-generation F-22s. We were actually in the red air. In five engagements we never knew who had hit us and we never even saw the other aeroplane…

After that particular mission I went back and had a look at the tapes on the F-22, and the difference in the situational awareness in our two cockpits was just so fundamentally different. That is the key to fifth-generation. That is where I have trouble with the APA analysis….To me that is key: it is not only stealth; it is the combination of the EOS and the radar to be able to build a comprehensive picture. In that engagement I talked about at Nellis, in Red Flag, the ability to be in a cockpit with a God’s-eye view of what is going on in the world was such an advantage over a fourth-generation fighter – and arguably one of the best fourth-generation fighters in existence, the F-15. But even with a DRFM jamming pipe, we still had no chance in those particular engagements. And at no time did any of the performance characteristics that you are talking about have any relevance to those five engagements.”

Image 2: F-22 and F-15 in vertical climb (Image Credit: USAF).

An earlier account from an Australian pilot flying with the 65th Aggressor Squadron:

"'I can’t see the [expletive deleted] thing,' said RAAF Squadron Leader Stephen Chappell, exchange F-15 pilot in the 65th Aggressor Squadron. 'It won’t let me put a weapons system on it, even when I can see it visually through the canopy. [Flying against the F-22] annoys the hell out of me.'” - Defense Industry Daily, 2007

For those who question the F-22's applicability outside of training exercises, a recent incident near Iran between an F-22 and an Iranian F-4 highlights many of the same points raised by Air Marshall Brown:

"Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh on Tuesday sketched out a dramatic tale of a lone F-22 Raptor chasing off Iranian fighter jets over the Arabian Gulf...In March, an Iranian F-4 flew within 16 miles of an MQ-1 Predator flying off the coast of Iran until a previously undisclosed aircraft escorted the Predator to safety. It turns out that aircraft was an F-22, the Air Force's fifth generation fighter...'This is the guy that warned them off,' he said. He flew under their aircraft to check out their weapons load without them knowing that he was there, and then pulled up on their left wing and then called them and said ‘you really ought to go home.''"

Image 3: The United States deploys 6 F-22's to Al Dhafra airbase in the UAE on a rotational basis (five of which are pictured above, the plane on the far left in an F-15). Raptors from both the 49th Fighter Wing and the 3rd Fighter Wing have been deployed to Al Dhafra (Cenciotti, 2012). At mach 2, Raptors from Al Dhafra would reach Iranian airspace within six minutes.


Image 4: F-22A rear

It can be difficult to clearly differentiate accounts where maneuverability as opposed to stealth and situational awareness served as the deciding factor(s) in the engagement. The rules of engagement, which dictate the terms of the dogfight, are not always released to the public as well as stealth is maintained to some degree even at visual range where maneuverability becomes more important. In combat exercises against French Rafles in 2009,  the variable of stealth is attempted to be controlled for. Radar reflected panels were fitted to the Raptor to degrade its stealth performance in addition to mounting external fuel tanks.

"For these training missions, the F-22As flew only within visual range 1 vs 1 BFM (Basic Fighter Maneuvering) sorties, and did so carrying under-wing fuel tanks, and with radar reflectors fitted, preventing opponents from seeing how ‘stealthy’ the F-22 is in operational configuration, or from experiencing the F-22’s AN/APG-77 radar and highly advanced AN/ALR-94 passive receiver system."

If these claims are true, the results of the exercises with the French give the closest result of the effectiveness of supermanuverability and situational awareness without the stealth variable. However, its worth noting that some have disputed the authenticity of these claims. The only publicly available footage from the exercises that I have managed to come across, from the perspective of one French Rafale, does not show any fuel tanks being fitted on the Raptor although the radar reflectors might have still been attached (also this is only one of the reportedly six engagements conducted against the Raptor by Rafales). It is entirely plausible that the USAF would be cautious of showing the true capabilities of the Raptor to the French. I mean no disrespect to my French colleagues, but instances of French industrial espionage in the field of aerospace are well documented.

Engagement starts at 2:15

As the footage seen in the footage, the French pilot manages to gain positioning for a IR missile shot. Some aspects of the engagements are disputed. Of the six 1 vs 1 engagements, four to five were deemed inconclusive/ a draw as a result of a lack of fuel, or the altitude limits for the terms of engagements was exceeded. The disputed claim is either one or two of the engagements resulted in the Raptor pilot(s) achieving a gun kill on the Rafale. However, both but both Flight Global and Arabian Aerospace report no Raptors were shot down in the exercise and USAF pilots claim the Raptor was "undefeated" throughout the exercise. Thus, it can be determined that the simulated IR missile shot in the video above did not result in a kill given the overall results of the exercise.  Even though the Rafale did not achieve any kills against the Raptor, the fact that a French pilot managed to position himself for an IR missile shot shows the Raptor is not invulnerable in a close in maneuvering fight. The few instances in which F-15 and F-16 pilots have manged to down Raptors in close maneuvering fights substantiates testimony given by Air Marshall Brown. General Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle explains how F-16 and F-15 pilots have managed to score a few kills against the Raptor in combat exercises:

"They [the F-22s] always start defensive as you might imagine because anything else is kind of a waste of gas. So the F-22 always start defensive. On rare occasions the F-22 guy — first of all, the [F-15] Eagle guy, you have to fly a perfect lag fight (flight?). You have to have AIM-9X and JHMCS [joint helmet mounted cueing system] to get an off-boresight IR [infrared] capability. And the F-22 guy has to put up his power a nanosecond too early and not use his countermeasures and you may get a fleeting, one nanosecond AIM-9X shot, and that’s about it.”

In summary, the results of training exercises indicate the Raptor is highly capable in close range maneuvering fights but it is clearly not invincible. The results of close in maneuvering fights indicates supermaneuverability alone is not responsible for the Raptor's success, stealth and heightened situational awareness have contributed immensely to the Raptor's overall combat effectiveness exercises. All instances of Raptors being shot down, with the possible exception of a case where an AIM-120 missile kill was achieved by a EA-18G, occurred at visual range in close in maneuvering fights. The F-35 shares stealth and heightened situational awareness with the Raptor and, given all the information that has been publicly released, there is no credible reason to conclude the F-35 is incapable of preforming similar "stand-off kills" utilizing stealth and situational awareness as described by Brown. If I may be frank for a moment, while the F-35 is certainly not as maneuverable as the F-22, it still preforms favorably relative to its peers in some maneuverability performance based metrics (e.g. good subsonic acceleration, decent thrust-to weight ratio, and commendable angle of attack performance). Oftentimes the descriptions of the F-35's maneuverability characteristics made by staunch critics are more applicable to an An-225 strategic airlift cargo aircraft than the F-35.

As an enviable consequence of engineering and funding, trade-offs are made between key aircraft characteristics in the design process. Air-to-air missions are only one aspect of the F-35's mission and as a result, it should not be assumed the F-35 would be as capable in this respect as the F-22. However, claims that suggest that the F-35 is completely incapable in the air-to-air role should be met with suspicion given the F-35's stealth and situational awareness. With regards to the F-35's maneuverability, every aircraft has strengths and weakness and it is the job of pilots to exploit those strengths while minimizing their aircraft's weaknesses.

"Know and use all the capabilities in your airplane. If you don't, sooner or later, some guy who does use them all will kick your ass." - Lieutenant Dave "Preacher" Pace, USN

Image 5: F-35 flown by the 422nd TES

The initial process of exploiting the F-35's strongest maneuverability characteristics in conjunction with its other strengths has likely already begun. F-35 aircraft have been delivered to the 422nd test and evaluation squadron. The 422nd preforms the critical function of developing new tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP) for new weapons and systems, including the F-35 (Stewart, 2013). The 422nd TES will also seek to improve interoperability and mixed force tactics between F-35's, F-22's, F-15's and F-16's.

"...the 422nd TES is also responsible for the development and testing of new tactics for the USAF, Kensick said. The squadron develops new tactics to employ weapons systems in combat as part of its operational testing role. Additionally, the unit also works on developing new tactics to counter emerging threat weapons systems as intelligence becomes available. When developing new tactics, the 422nd TES works 'side by side with the Weapons School. We talk to representatives from the Weapons School and we get their input', Kensick said. However, ultimately, the 422nd TES is responsible for the development and testing of all new tactics for every CAF fighter Mission Design Series (MDS), Kensick emphasized." - Dave Majumdar, 2009

F-35 pilots will eventually be able to apply these tactics in a host of realistic combat exercises such as Red Flag against well trained aggressor pilots. Aggressor squadrons fly specially modified F-15, F-16, F-5, T-38, and F/A-18 aircraft to replicate the tactics and flight qualities of Russian, Chinese, Iranian, and North Korean aircraft (Hoffman, 2009). Aggressor pilots are often chosen for their prowess in the air and are thoroughly briefed on enemy tactics and doctrines by the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the NSA (Bender, 2013). The combination of stealth, situational awareness, tactics developed by the 422nd (along with other test and evaluation squadrons) and the real world experience given to pilots by the Red Flag exercises ensures that even at visual range, future F-35 pilots will be more than prepared for the fight.


  1. Air Force F-22 Fighter Program, Jeremiah Gertler, 2013.
  2. Welsh: F-22 Flew to Drone's Rescue off Iran Coast, Matthew Cox, 2013.
  3. Photographer captures six F-22 Raptor fighter jets trailing three tankers over the Mediterranean Sea, David Cenciotti, 2013.                                     
  4. Raptor Rules The Desert Roost, Arabian Aerospace, 2010.
  5. UAE missile demands and more Rafale v. Raptor rumors, Stephen Trimble, 2010.
  6. Rare video shows F-22 Raptor shot down by the French Rafale in mock air-to-air combat, David Cenciotti, 2013.                                                                       
  7. Top USAF general explains EXACTLY how to kill an F-22, Stephen Trimble, 2012.
  9. The USAF Weapons School in the age of sequestration, Dave Majumdar, 2013.
  10. Air Force reopens Raptor Weapons School, Dave Majumdar, 2012.
  11. The makings of a warrior: Training pilots to fly America's next generation fighters. Part 1, Dave Majumdar, 2009.                                                                     
  12. The makings of a warrior: The F-22 Weapons School. Part 3, Dave Majumdar, 2009.
  13. The 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron: The cutting edge of airpower, Dave Majumdar, 2009.
  14. Nellis Plans for F-35’s Opportunities, Challenges, Donna Miles, 2009.
  15. Weapons School Rising, Adam J. Hebert, 2008.
  16. How does the F-16 perform against its adversaries in dogfight, David Centoti, 2012.
  18. Beyond Blue Four  The Past and Future Transformation of Red Flag, Maj Alexander Berger, 2005.
  19. The F-22 Raptor: Program & Events, Defense Industry Daily, 2013.
  20. Plymouth native emulates enemy in Air Force war games, Bryan Bender, 2013.
  21. Aggressor pilots: Paid to play the villain, Michael Hoffman, 2009.
  22. 422ND JOINT TACTICS SQUADRON, U.S. Air Force Expeditionary Center, 2013.
  23. F-35 Enters Operational Testing at Edwards and Nellis Air Force Bases, Defense Update, 2013.
  24. First F-35A sporting 31st Test and Evaluation Squadron lettering and "OT" tail code, spotted at NAS Forth Worth JRB, David Centoti, 2012.
  25. Red Flag, Walter J. Boyne, 2000.
  26. The F-35′s Air-to-Air Capability Controversy, Defense Industry Daily, 2013.
  27. F-22s Parked Less Than Six-Minute Flight from Iran, Marcus Weisgerber, 2013.
  28. Fighter Combat Tactics and Manuvering, Shaw, 1985.
  29. F-35 Integrated Sensor Suite: Lethal Combination, Avionics Today, 2005.
  30. U.S. Deploys F-22 Fighter Jets to UAE: Officials, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, 2012.