By Bijan Razzaghi
After making its combat debut in May the F-35A has proven itself as a survivable platform while operating in contested airspace. Recently declassified missions included both daytime and night time operations. The F-35Is being used were pictured flying high above Beirut on a day time mission. It was reported that Syrian air defenses were unable to locate and shoot down the F-35s, some sources say that over 100 Surface to air missiles were fired including S-200s, BUKs, Pantsirs, SA-6s and SA-2s.
This recent operation provides a preview of how US Air Force F-35As would operate in contested airspace over Syria or in Eastern Europe. The F-35A and F-22A provide a deadly combination for US tactical air operations in enemy territory. The F-35A although being capable of air to air combat would primarily be responsible for conducting ground attacks using 2000lb JDAM or Paveway guided bombs. While the F-35As attack ground targets F-22As supported by AWACs would be responsible for air superiority and escort much like its predecessor the F-15. The F-22A can deploy up to 6 AIM-120 AMRAAMs and 2 Sidewinders being able to engage any aircraft that might near the strike force.
This combination of 5th generation platforms is critical in today’s A2/AD environment, as recent combat experience in Syria has proven the vulnerability of 4th generation fighters inside contested airspace. 4th generation fighters are still survivable, yet they must rely on using standoff weapons from undenied airspace. While operating in denied airspace large numbers of less sophisticated SAMs can pose a significant threat. In addition older SAM systems are being upgraded to fire air to air missiles such as the AA-10 and AA-11 which have had success in hitting Saudi and Emirati F-15 and F-16s over Yemen. Modern fighter aircraft with BVR capability such as the Mig-31, Su-30BM and Su-35 can also pose a threat.
Based on these experiences the solution for successful air operations in denied air space is low observable stealthy aircraft. While 4th generation aircraft using stand off JSOWs, Popeye and Storm-shadows can be successful, they are limited to certain targets. Being able to get close to the target can ensure success during an air operation.