Thursday, March 24, 2011

Missing in Action

Since Odyssey Dawn kicked off almost a week ago, at least one vaunted aircraft has been missing from the campaign to kill Qaddafi; err...protect civilians...conduct kinetic operations, or whatever it is that we're trying to accomplish in Libya.

The absent aircraft? None other than the Air Force's F-22 Raptor stealth fighter. Days into the Libya operation, the most lethal aircraft in the world has yet to fly a single sort over Qaddafi's territory.

Officially, the reason for the Raptor's absence is "incompatibility" with other aircraft and existing command-and-control systems. From Air Force Times:

“The designers of the F-22 had a dilemma, which is whether to have the connectivity that would allow versatility or to have the radio silence that would facilitate stealthiness. What they opted for was a limited set of tactical data links,” said Loren Thompson, an analyst and chief operating office at the Lexington Institute, Arlington Va.

The F-22 can only connect with other F-22s via an intraflight data link, and can only receive, but not transmit, over the standard Link-16 data link found on most allied aircraft.

Radio emissions from various data links could potentially give away the aircraft’s position, Thompson said.

As such, while the Raptor is the stealthiest operational aircraft in the world, it lacks much of the connectivity found on other warplanes, he said.

Analyst also note that the F-22 has only a modest air-to-surface capability. Currently, the fifth-generation fighter can carry only two, 1,000-pound Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs), which are GPS-guided. By comparison, the F-15E Strike Eagle can drop twelve times as much ordnance, including the new small diameter bomb, favored for engagements in urban areas, or in proximity to friendly forces or civilians on the ground.

While the F-22 will eventually gain similar capabilities, they will come in modest increments, as AFT reports:

"...It [the F-22) does not yet have the ability to carry the 250-pound Small Diameter Bomb (SDB) or to create synthetic aperture radar maps, which are black and white photo-quality images of the Earth’s surface, needed to select its own ground targets...Those capabilities will be available once the Increment 3.1 hardware and software upgrade is fielded into the operational Raptor fleet later this year. However, even with Increment 3.1 installed, the F-22 will only be able to designate two targets in total for the eight SDBs it would be able to carry. The operational test force has been putting Increment 3.1 through its paces at Nellis AFB, Nev., since November."

However, the addition of Increment 3.1 will not resolve the Raptor’s basic inability to connect with other aircraft, nor has the Air Force articulated a clear plan for the F-22 to do so. A future upgrade called Increment 3.2 was to have included the Multifunction Advanced Data-link (MADL) found on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, however, the Air Force deleted funding for that data link last year.

Air Force doctrine calls for the Raptor to escort B-2 stealth bombers into hostile territory, "kicking down the door" of an adversary's air defense network. But in reality, the F-22 really wasn't required for the Libya mission. Three B-2s from Whiteman AFB, Missouri flew unescorted missions over Libya on 20 March, just as they did in Serbia and Iraq. Against a dated air defense system (like the one protecting Qaddafi), the B-2 can easily go it alone. Older aircraft also face little threat from Libya's surface-to-air missiles and AAA guns. So far, coalition forces have lost only one aircraft, an F-15E that went down after suffering a mechanical problem. The jet's two-man crew was rescued.

Another reason for the F-22's absence is the seemingly ad hoc nature of the air operation. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters earlier this week that we're literally "making it up on the fly." That may explain why U.S. officials were telling reporters last weekend that Qaddafi wasn't a target--as French jets were targeting the Libyan leader's compound. Against that backdrop, it would be more difficult to integrate the F-22 into the operation.

And, there's some concern about who would be monitoring the Raptors over Libya. Truth be told, we're not very concerned about the Libyans monitoring radio emissions from the F-22; their ability to translate that information into a shoot down is less-than-marginal. On the other hand, the Russians and Chinese could gain valuable information about Raptor operations that would better prepare an advanced IADS for dealing with the aircraft.

Still, isn't that what the F-22 is supposed to do? Utilize is speed and stealth to dominate airspace protected by the SA-20 and other advanced SAM systems? Besides, Moscow and Beijing have systems capable of monitoring the Raptor at home station and on training ranges where its electronic systems are utilized. Presumably, they know a fair amount about its signature and capabilities already. Given that fact, how much of the F-22 playbook are we really trying to protect?

Equally puzzling is deletion of the funding line for MADL, which would link the F-22, B-2 and F-35 in the future. If discrete communications is an issue for our stealth jet community, you'd think that program would be a higher priority.

Unless it was moved into the black world. We can only hope that's where the MADL budget now resides.

1 comment:

sykes.1 said...

Well if the F22/F35 are pretty much useless, the F15 line is still open. Congress should make the Airforce buy planes we can actually use.