Stealth Fighters and Killer Missiles—Anti-Militant Air Campaign Expands
Brits launch Brimstone missiles as fresh F-22s arrive
Between Sept. 23 and 30, the U.S. and its allies flew no fewer than 76 air strikes targeting Islamic State forces in Syria. Adding in bombing raids on militants in Iraq, the expanding coalition has struck Islamic State from the air nearly 310 times since early August, according to Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby.
And the aerial campaign is getting more sophisticated, as fresh U.S. Air Force F-22 stealth fighters deploy and the U.K. Royal Air Force launches its super-precise Brimstone missiles.
“The targets that we and our partners are hitting in this campaign range from the area around Baghdad to Fallujah, across north central Iraq to Mosul, and in Syria, from the east and north, near the borders with Iraq and Turkey to Aleppo, and of course, including Raqqa,” Kirby said in a Sept. 30 briefing at the Pentagon.
Ar Raqqa is Islamic State’s self-declared capital. “In other words, when we say we’re going to go after them, we mean it,” the admiral added.
The Royal Air Force had stationed veteran Tornado swing-wing attack jets and its latest Voyager aerial tankers in Cyprus in anticipation of joining America, France, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Jordan and Saudi Arabia in bombing Islamic State, whose forces include as many as 31,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria, according to Kirby.
The combined aerial armada—including U.S. F-15E, F-16, F-22 and F/A-18 fighters, AV-8B jump jets, B-1 bombers and EA-6B radar-jammers and armed drones plus French Rafales and Arab F-15s, F-16s and Tornadoes—has destroyed Islamic State’s command centers, supply depots, fighting positions and vehicles, including American-made Humvees and blast-proof trucks the militants seized from the retreating Iraqi army.
The British Tornadoes—progressively upgraded over their more than three decades of front-line service—carried Paveway laser-guided bombs and high-tech Brimstone anti-tank missiles when the RAF launched its first sorties against the Islamists in Iraq on Sept. 30.
“Two Tornadoes were tasked to assist Kurdish troops in northwest Iraq who were under attack from [Islamic State] terrorists,” according to a British government release. “On arriving overhead, the RAF patrol, using the Litening III targeting pod, identified an [Islamic State] heavy weapon position which was engaging Kurdish ground forces.”
The Tornadoes dropped one Paveway onto the position and then quickly targeted an Islamic State technical—a gun-armed pickup truck—in the same area. The swing-wing jets fired a Brimstone missile … and recorded resulting blast with the targeting pod’s video camera.
“An initial assessment indicates that both precision strikes were successful,” the government asserted.
After the 1991 Gulf War showed how effective small, air-launched missiles could be against enemy tanks, London spent more than $1 billion developing Brimstone. The 200-pound missile finally entered service in 2005.
“Ground acquisition and target recognition are achieved by a millimetric wave radar seeker,” according to the Royal Air Force. “The weapon locks onto a target after launch and is designed for the attack and destruction of armored targets.”
“Steerable fins guide the missile towards the target with final impact causing a tandem charge warhead to detonate,” the air arm continued in an online fact sheet. “The first, smaller warhead nullifies reactive armor, allowing the follow-through charge to penetrate the main armor.”
Brimstone is highly accurate. In early 2014, manufacturer MBDA fired nine test missiles at nine remote-controlled trucks traveling as fast as 70 miles per hour. “Nine direct hits,” The Daily Mail reported.
While the Brits were plinking militant trucks, the U.S. Air Force was getting ready to swap out its six F-22 stealth fighters at their home-away-from-home at Al Dhafra air base in the UAE.
On Sept. 23, the F-22s struck some of the Islamic State targets closest to the Syrian regime’s dense air-defense network of missiles and radars. While the brutal regime of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad has chosen not to interfere with the air raids—and in fact benefits from attacks on its own Islamist foes—American planners have not taken chances.
They’ve added anti-radar munitions to some attacking jets, just in case U.S. and allied forces must defend themselves from Al Assad’s surface-to-air missile batteries. And the planners have sent pilotless cruise missiles or the radar-evading F-22s to areas where regime defenses overlap with Islamic State’s positions.
The F-22s currently in the UAE are from the 1st Fighter Wing in Virginia—and have been in the Middle East since the spring. The Pentagon began rotating squads of six F-22s through Al Dhafra on six-month tours starting in 2012.
In addition to bombing Syria with GPS-guided munitions, the stealth fighters have escorted American spy drones surveilling Iran—and have even tangled with Iranian fighters trying to intercept the drones.
The 1st Fighter Wing’s turn in the UAE is ending. On or around Sept. 29, amateur plane-spotters tracked six fresh stealth fighters from the Florida-based 325th Fighter Wing passing through Spain en route to Al Dhafra to replace the other F-22s.
U.S. air planners, working around the clock in a sophisticated commander center in Qatar, value the F-22 not only for its ability to avoid detection and bomb well-defended targets. The stealth jet also packs impressive sensors including a long-range radar and “passive” detectors that can pinpoint enemy electronics.
“The greatest capability the F-22 brings is its integrated avionics, its fused avionics that facilitates situational awareness not just for the pilot in the airplane but really for the entire package that is going to execute the mission,” Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, an Air Force deputy chief of staff, told Defense News.
In other words, the stealth fighter is scouting out targets for other planes, according to Harrigian.
But in fact, the F-22’s encrypted datalink only allows it to routinely pass data to other F-22s—and not to F-15s, F-16s and other older jets. That’s intentional. The secure communications help the stealth fighter avoid detection by the enemy’s own listening devices. Most other U.S. and allied warplanes exchange information using the less secure Link-16 datalink.
Lockheed Martin, which built all 195 of the Air Force’s F-22s, has developed new equipment to plug F-22s into the Link-16 network, but it’s not clear whether the Air Force has paid to install the gear.
At present, the only sure way for a stealth fighter to communicate—without the pilot simply broadcasting his voice over radio, of course—is to connect to one of the Pentagon’s handful of secretive Battlefield Airborne Communications Node planes or drones.
The BACN aircraft—the Air Force possesses just seven of them—“translate” different radio waveforms to help incompatible airplanes exchange information.
The flying branch does not routinely announce the locations of its BACN planes, so we don’t know for sure whether there has been one flying near Iraq or Syria.
But it seems a safe bet. Likewise, we’re guessing the Air Force has also deployed stealthy RQ-170 drones to work alongside the equally elusive F-22s. Something—presumably an unmanned aircraft—shot video of an Islamic State outpost as F-22s bombed it on Sept. 23.