Here's an idea for a tee-shirt: "I Spent $412 Million on an F-22, and All I Got Was This Lousy Bomb on Syria."
Last week, the F-22 Raptor -- America's premier jet fighter -- made its combat debut. Was its first combat mission dogfighting with other sophisticated jets like Russia's T-50 or China's J-20? No, it was dropping smart bombs on Islamic militants in Syria whose most sophisticated aircraft is a little surveillance drone.
Among the targets the Raptors struck was an ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) "command and control facility," according to the Pentagon. That led Fox News to trumpet the F-22's baptism of fire, quoting defense experts who thought the aircraft had lived up to its $412 million per copy price tag. They credited the F-22 with a unique capability to stealthily penetrate Syria’s air defenses, and then precisely drop a guided bomb on a target in the middle of a city without causing collateral damage or casualties.
Target destroyed. No F-22s lost. Good news for America's flagship fighter. But a ringing endorsement for one of the most expensive warplanes in history? Not quite.
A true test of a worthy aircraft is a worthy adversary, a label that does not quite apply to Syria. Syria's air defense forces have had one brief period of glory, when a thick network of Soviet-made surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft guns took a sharp toll of unprepared Israeli aircraft in 1973. Since then, the Israeli air force has repeatedly bombed Syria without loss, including a 2007 strike on a nuclear site and Hezbollah-bound missiles in 2013.
The Syrian government was reportedly warned in advance of the U.S. strikes. Yet even if Damascus had objected, it couldn't have done that much to stop it. Most of its anti-aircraft weapons are Cold War-era designs.
The Syrian government for years has been trying to upgrade its defenses--looking specifically to purchase the advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missile system from Russia. But challenging F-22s, let alone older F-15 and F-16s, requires an integrated air defense system of radars, communications links, weapons and command centers. With the Syrian military racked by losses and desertions from fighting a brutal war against rebels armed with Kalashnikovs and rocket launchers, air defense is probably not their highest priority.
While much depends on which aircraft attacked which ISIS targets, the fact is that most of the attacking aircraft were older platforms, including U.S. and Arab F-15s, F-16s, F-18s and B-1s. They did so without loss, which suggests that the F-22 wasn't really needed over Syria. If it was, then one wonders how most of the U.S. Air Force would fare over North Korea or other nations.
A more likely reason for unleashing the Raptor was to prove that the F-22, repeatedly grounded for oxygen problems blamed for at least one death, is fit to fly. Since no F-22 pilots apparently passed out over Syria, at least the Air Force can claim the problem has been temporarily fixed.
Or, maybe the F-22's debut is related to another aircraft. The F-22 production line has been shut down, so the 187 Raptors still flying (that number is bound to decrease due to accidents and age) are the first and the last. But what is coming is 2,443 of the Pentagon's other ultra-controversial fifth-generation stealth fighter -- the F-35. The Raptor sat out the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. Now that an F-22 stealth fighter has flown one combat mission, it might be easier to defend the F-35 against its numerous critics who complain about the aircraft's cost and performance.
But the F-35 is designed more as a strike aircraft than as an air superiority fighter, which means it will need fighter escort. The F-22 would be that escort, but with so few of them in existence, they should not be wasted on petty missions where a lucky hit by an anti-aircraft weapon (like the Serbian shootdown of an F-117 in 1999) could destroy them. It is the same curse that afflicted battleships; expensive war machines are too precious to risk, which means that their full capabilities can never be used.
On the other hand, it was inevitable that sooner or later the F-22 would fly its first combat mission. It is reasonable for the Pentagon to choose a relatively easy target for that mission. But the F-22's real mission -- the reason why the taxpayer ponied up billions of dollars for just a couple of hundred airplanes -- was blasting enemy aircraft out of the sky. If all that was needed was a bomb truck to drop a smart bomb, then a cheaper aircraft would do.