This past Wednesday, I had the opportunity to fly on a training sortie during the U.S. Air Force’s Atlantic Trident 17 exercise at Joint Base Langley Eustis in Virginia.
The war game brings together the three premier NATO air forces and the best operational fighters in the alliance’s arsenal including the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor—flown by hosts, the 1st Fighter Wing—the Lockheed Martin F-35A Joint Strike Fighter, the British Royal Air Force’s Eurofighter Typhoons and the French Armée de l'Air’s Dassault Rafales. U.S. Air Force Boeing F-15E Strike Eagles from the 391st Fighter Squadron and Northrop Grumman T-38 Talon jet trainers from the 1st Fighter Wing’s own 71st Fighter Training Squadron provided “Red Air” support playing the bad guys.
Having had a long association with the Raptor community, Col. Peter “Coach” Fesler, commander of the elite 1st Fighter Wing, wanted me to see first hand how the F-22, F-35, Typhoon and the Rafale operate together from the air. To that end, the Air Force arranged for me to fly onboard a 71st FTS Northrop T-38A on an operational training sortie during the third week of Atlantic Trident 17—when the exercise is at its peak intensity.
The first order of business was a stop at the Langley Air Force Base hospital to get my temporary 72-hour flight physical. The medical examination was very similar to a Navy Class I flight physical—which I have undergone several times—but without an audiogram or cardiogram. Indeed, the Air Force flight surgeon told me that the examination was indeed an abbreviated and modified version of the Class I flight physical that is required for the service’s pilots. After a very thorough examination, my flight surgeon gave her ascent and I was cleared to fly.
Because my sortie was what the Air Force calls a “familiarization flight”—which is usually afforded to Air Force pilots, officers and other personnel who normally carry out other duties rather than a typical media flight—I had to undergo survival training to fly onboard the T-38A that is identical to what the pilots receive. The training included instruction on water survival, on all of the survival equipment— including the various radios—and how to properly don the T-38A’s rather unique, old school flight-gear. Special emphasis was placed on how to harness into the parachute and ejection seat.
More importantly, the Air Force instructors who taught the class—which included two photographers, a B-52 pilot, an E-3 pilot and an E-3 radar crewman—detailed the finer points of ejecting from the T-38A and how to egress on the ground in the event of an emergency. Indeed, the instructors placed special emphasis on bailout procedures because the T-38A does not have a zero/zero ejection seat. We then had a class about parachute training that culminated in a simulated parachute landing using virtual reality goggles.
The next day I had to report to the 71st Fighter Training Squadron to be fitted for my flight gear. The Air Force technicians first had to fit me for an OTS 600 immersion suit—derisively referred to as a poopy suit because it is extremely uncomfortable—which is necessary for flying over the Atlantic during cold weather. Next, I had to don a fireproof Nomex flight suit and boots, over which goes the G-suit. After that, I had to be issued a parachute, harness and seat-kit as well as be fitted for a helmet and mask. The 71st FTS technicians were absolute professionals in fitting me out for the flight.
The following morning I finally reported into the squadron ops desk at the 71st FTS. There I met my pilot—a very impressive young man with the callsign “Tsar” (for security reasons, the Air Force asked that we only publish the names of commanding officers) who was on his first assignment out of undergraduate pilot training. The 26-year-old pilot was near the top of his class and will report to the 43rd Fighter Squadron for his next assignment—the F-22 “B-Course”—where he will learn to fly the Raptor at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida.
An assignment to the 71st FTS where young pilots can learn from seasoned veterans while learning the strengths and weakness of the Raptor—not to mention F-22 tactics, techniques and procedures—offers enormous advantages to Tsar and his peers in the unit. Indeed, scheduled to fly with us was our flight lead “Score”—a veteran F-16 pilot—and my old friend “Fangs”—who I first met over a decade ago at Nellis AFB, Nevada, when he was an operational test pilot putting the F-22 through its paces. Learning from veterans like Score and Fangs, Tsar will have an enormous advantage when he begins learning to fly the Raptor on his next assignment.
For the actual sortie, our 3-ship of T-38As was designated Vodka Flight. Score—as the flight lead—was Vodka 1, Fangs was Vodka 2 while Tsar and I were Vodka 3. Ahead of us was another flight of aggressors designated MiG Flight, while behind us were Iron and Fist Flights. The idea—together with the F-15Es—was to present the F-22s, F-35s, Typhoons and Rafales a realistic high-end threat presentation. The Talons were replicating the Russian-made Mikoyan MiG-29 Fulcrum while the F-15E replicated the Sukhoi Flanker series.
After we kitted up and “stepped” to the jets and strapped into the aircraft, Tsar quickly ran through the checklists and started up the aircraft. Once the jets were up and running, we taxied to the active runway for a formation takeoff. The three aircraft in our formation—led by Score—climbed to altitude and transited to the range to start the fight. Typically, the T-38As fights at altitudes around 10,000ft to 14,000ft during a normal aggressor mission, but due to bad weather and icing conditions, we quickly climbed to 22,000ft as we entered the range.
Entering into the fight, our three Talon/Fulcrums maneuvered around trying to engage the Blue Force aircraft. While the Talon doesn’t have the avionics or the kinematic performance to truly mimic a real Russian fourth-generation fighter— especially for a within visual range fight—the aircraft offers a reasonable facsimile of fighter performance at beyond visual range distances.
Indeed, that’s the idea behind the T-38 aggressors—the job is to provide the F-22s with thinking targets that can ruthlessly exploit any weakness in tactics or pilot errors at long range using their intimate knowledge of the Raptor and its operations. If the Talons reach visual range—or encounter the Raptors at the “merge”—something has gone terribly wrong. Indeed, even the British pilots flying the Typhoon agreed that the Talon provides a good threat presentation.
As luck would have it, it would be a Royal Air Force Typhoon that ultimately took down Tsar and I in Vodka 3. Within minutes of starting the fight, Vodka 1 and Vodka 2 were taken down before we even knew our flight was under attack. As Tsar started to maneuver our aircraft, trying to evade an enemy we couldn’t see, a Typhoon coordinating with an F-22 quickly and unceremoniously dispatched us. Unfortunately, the weather was terrible and we were ordered to return to base because of the need to maintain high fuel reserves—but normally the T-38s “regenerate” or come back to life several times during a sortie. But the bottom line is: Seeing is believing—the Raptor and Typhoon are a lethal combination.
“Even if you were in an Eagle or J-20... You felt the same thing,” a senior Air Force official with an air superiority background told me after my flight—referring to the feeling of utter helplessness of being attacked by an invisible enemy. “Because of the security cloak, it's just impossible to explain. If everyone really knew and we asked to ‘choose their weapon’—there would be no doubt.”
Flying back to Langley, the experience was an eye-opener. I have been covering the Raptor and the F-35 since beginning of both programs. It is one thing to intellectually grasp the power of stealth, but seeing it in action makes one a believer—our flight had no idea, no warning from the AWACS or GCI that we were about to be hit until it was all over. It’s nearly impossible to fight an enemy you can’t see.
While the Raptor would be the most formidable fighter in the world due to its raw performance even without stealth, it’s now clear to me that even the F-35 with its mediocre kinematic performance will be an extremely dangerous foe in the air due to its low radar cross-section and sensors. “If the pilots of both could carry a 9mm and open the canopy inflight, they would have 15 more kills per sortie,” the senior Air Force official told me. “It's like fighting Mr. Invisible.”
Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.