Looks Like the Russians Tried to Lure U.S. Stealth Fighters Into an Intel Trap
Flanker-E fighters played a role
Two U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptors intercepted the formation some 50 miles south of Chariot, Alaska.
The Su-35 is a “4++ generation” aircraft characterized by its supermaneuverability. Although it’s not stealthy, it is equipped with an Irbis-E passive electronically-scanned array radar and a long-range infrared search and tracking system that, according to Russian sources, is capable of detecting stealth aircraft such as the F-35 at a distance of more than 50 miles.
The Su-35S deployed to Hmeymim air base near Latakia in Syria at the beginning of 2016 to provide cover to the Russian warplanes conducting raids in Syria in the aftermath of the downing of a Russian Su-24 Fencer by a Turkish air force F-16.
During the Syrian air war, the aircraft carried the Vympel R-77 medium-range, active-radar-homing air-to-air missile, the Russian counterpart of the American AIM-120 AMRAAM, along with R-27T infrared-guided air-to-air missiles. However, the Flanker-E jets escorting the Tu-95s off Alaska were unarmed.
Shortly after being deployed to Syria, the Su-35S started shadowing U.S.-led coalition aircraft. A German air force spokesperson explained that the Russian Flankers were among the aircraft the Russian air force sent to shadow the German Tornado fighters flying reconnaissance missions against ISIS.
A video shot by U.S. Navy squadron VFA-31 — deployed aboard the aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower in support of Operation Inherent Resolve in Syria and Iraq — depicted a close encounter with what appeared to be a Flanker-E. The Navy has apparently deleted the video from YouTube.
As we’ve seen no confirmed reports of close encounters between the F-22 and the Flanker-E over Syria, the May 3 episode could be the first time the two types have met — and is certainly the first time they’ve met near the U.S. coast.
Moreover, it’s worth noticing the readiness posture of the stealth fighters.
Indeed, according to U.S. Air Force, the Raptors were “committed” by North American Aerospace Defense Command to intercept the Russian aircraft while they, the F-22s, were already in the air, patrolling not too far away.
It’s not clear whether the F-22s were already flying because they were involved in the Northern Edge exercise, or because the Air Force set up a combat air patrol as a consequence of the unprecedented Russian bomber activity in early 2017.
A capture from VFA-31’s cruise video, depicting Su-35S over Syria. U.S. Navy capture
Anyway, the American stealth fighters were already flying and thus could quickly divert to greet the Russian planes, which were reportedly supported by an A-50 Mainstay surveillance plane flying at a distance.
The presence of the Mainstay and Flanker-Es confirms what this author explained in a previous report about the key factors to take in consideration when planning a long-range strike sortie.
In my opinion, the Russians launched the formation in reaction to the Americans’ own increased flight activity in Alaska related to the Northern Edge exercise. It’s clear — the Russians closely observe what happens in the area surrounding Alaska.
This time, they wanted to show off their ability to plan a complex, long-range sortie, as well as the Flanker’s readiness to escort a bomber during operations at strategic distance.
The composition of the Russian package is also worth comment.
The presence of the Mainstay should not be underestimated. It was flying well behind the Flankers and Bears with a specific purpose. As an airborne-early-warning platform, the A-50 likely features some electronic support measures.
In other words, it’s able to detect far-away targets … and can also sniff radar, radio and datalink emissions. Furthermore, Raptors in a quick reaction alert usually fly with external fuel tanks and Lunenburg lenses. This means that they are deliberately visible to radars.
That means that, although it can’t “characterize” a clean F-22’s signature, the Mainstay can at least gather data on the Raptor’s radar emissions — if any — and observe its tactics.
On May 3, the Russians probably carried out their simulated, long-range strike mission, but with a precise electronics-intelligence objective. The Flankers and Bears were acting as a decoy package to test the Americans’ scramble tactics and reaction times. Whereas the Mainstay, in a distant position, tried to collect as much signals intel as possible.