Two U.S. Air Force F-35 stealth fighter had a close encounter with a mobile air-defense system during combat operations over the Middle East.
The encounter underscores the stealth fighter’s potential as a platform for suppressing enemy air-defenses, a service official said.
A dozen F-35s from the 388th and 419th Fighter Wings in April 2019 traveled from their home station at Hill Air Force Base in Utah to Al Dhafra air base in the United Arab Emirates to participate in coalition air operations targeting Islamic State militants in the Middle East.
Gen. David Abba, director of the Air Force’s F-35 integration office, in early March 2020 told attendees of an industry conference that the 12 F-35s during their seven-month deployment flew 1,300 combat missions totalling 7,300 hours and dropped 150 weapons.
“The numbers were pretty remarkable,” Abba said, according to Aviation Week reporter Steve Trimble.
Abba described one sortie where a pair of F-35s detected, apparently via their ASQ-239 electronic-warfare suites, a mobile air-defense system. E.W. gear can pick up on the radar and radio emissions from enemy forces, allowing a crew passively to locate the enemy without activating its own radar.
Abba didn’t identify the type of air-defense vehicle or its operator, but it’s worth noting that Syrian forces have deployed the latest Russian-made Pantsir surface-to-air missile launchers.
Turkish warplanes have made quick work of many of the Pantsirs as part of Turkey’s ongoing air campaign targeting the Russian- and Iranian-backed Syrian regime. Videos that have circulated on-line depict Turkish drones firing precision-guided missiles to destroy idling Pantsirs.
The F-35s detected the SAM launcher via their electronic-warfare gear then zeroed in using the mapping function on their APG-81 radars. The resulting coordinates were precise enough to guide a missile or bomb, but the F-35s simply avoided the air-defense vehicle rather than destroy it.
Still, the mission points to the F-35’s potential in the suppression or destruction of enemy air-defenses role, or SEAD/DEAD, Abba said. “Make no bones about it, this aircraft is the preeminent SEAD/DEAD platform,” Abba said, “and that’s what we need to optimize it for.”
As recently as 2016, the Air Force described the F-35’s SEAD/DEAD capability as “limited,” Trimble noted. That assessment clearly has changed as the F-35 and its crews have improved.
SEAD/DEAD missions are among the most dangerous in aerial warfare, as they require a crew deliberately to engage enemy air-defense systems. For that reason, leading air forces tend to assign SEAD/DEAD missions to specialized aircraft with highly-trained crews.
The U.S. Navy’s EA-18G arguably is the world’s best SEAD/DEAD system. It combines the airframe of a Super Hornet strike-fighter with sophisticated E.W. gear and electronic jammers that can disrupt enemy radars and communications.
The EA-18G also can carry radar-homing missiles, allowing it to destroy rather than merely suppress air-defense systems.
The F-35 lacks both active jammers and a compatible radar-homing missile. Granted, the Air Force in coming years plans to integrate with the F-35 two different types of radar-homing missile. But for the near future, the F-35 as a SEAD/DEAD platform would rely on its passive sensors, radar and standard precision-guided bombs.
It’s not unreasonable to assign SEAD/DEAD to a non-specialist platform. The Air Force on occasion has described the F-22 as a SEAD/DEAD platform, even though it too lacks jammers and radar-homing weapons. An F-22 with its sensitive E.W. gear, high speed and GPS-guided bombs could detect and attack enemy SAM systems more safely than, say, a non-stealthy F-15 could do.
And the F-35 in the defense-suppression role certainly is better than nothing. The Navy’s roughly 100 EA-18Gs in a major war could struggle to meet the demand for SEAD/DEAD. The Air Force last operated its own SEAD platform, the unarmed EF-111, in the late 1990s.
F-35s could back up the EA-18Gs, helping to suppress air-defenses so that non-stealthy warplanes such as F/A-18s, A-10s, F-15s, F-16s and B-52s safely can attack.