F-22 Raptors May Not be Able to Overcome the Su-35 After All;Severe Shortcomings of the United States’ Most Advanced Fighter Emerge During Operations in Syria
Since the Russian Air Force began its military operations in Syria in September 2015 the country had deployed some of its most advanced fighters to bases in the Middle Eastern country. These have included the Su-30 and Su-35 air superiority platforms, heavy fighters based on the airframe of the renowned Soviet Su-27 with formidable air to air combat capabilities. Since the Turkish downing of a Russian Su-24 strike fighter in November 2015, a dated Russian platform with negligible air to air capabilities, the Air Force has equipped its advanced Sukhoi platforms with air to air missiles to guard against the threat of Western bloc fighters operating in the country.
With heavily armed Su-30 and Su-35 fighters flying regular sorties over Syria, combined with the deployment of Russia’s most sophisticated air defence systems to the country, the balance of power in the skies was strongly in Russia’s favour. U.S. military reports indicate that the Russian Su-35 is more capable in air to air combat than any fighter in the world – with the sole exception of the F-22 Raptor. These reports notably predate the induction of the Chinese J-20, which could potentially challenge both the Raptor and the Sukhoi. As a result, with tensions with Russian forces growing, the United States began to deploy its most advanced air superiority platform to Syria. The F-22 was expected to shift the balance of power firmly in the Americans’ favour – a much needed asset in the Middle Eastern theatre and perhaps the only one capable of counterbalancing the deployment of cutting edge Russian assets in the country. Raptors deployed from a U.S. airbase in the United Arab Emirates, also a base of operations for strikes on Afghanistan.
While it is by far the most capable Western fighter in service, the emergence of several significant flaws have effected the Raptor’s performance and severely compromising the fighter’s ability to project power and over Syrian skies. Foremost among these are the F-22’s extremely high maintenance requirements, which make sorties more than once a week impossible – and when operating as far as Syria makes sorties more than twice a month extremely difficult. This only exacerbates the numerical disadvantage the Raptor faces, with fighters stretched across the world and few available for deployment to the Middle East. Flaws have also emerged with the Raptor’s combat performance, particularly relative to the relatively low maintenance Sukhoi platform.
The Su-35 carries 175% of the F-22’s payload and is far more maneuverable, incorporating three dimensional thrust vectoring. The Su-35 also has the advantage of fielding 130km range R-27 missiles, potentially giving it an advantage in beyond visual range combat against the F-22’s 105km range AIM-120C. With both fighters having similarly sophisticated avionics and electronic warfare systems, the F-22’s primary advantage is considered to be its stealth capabilities. This allows the Raptors to use their extremely low radar cross section to evade the Su-35’s radar in beyond visual range engagements, potentially compensating for the Raptor’s shorter missile range by allowing it to close the 25km gap undetected. The F-22’s recent performance in Syria has however brought its ability to successfully engage Russian platforms at a distance into question.
While Russian Sukhoi fighters currently in service do not operate with minimised radar cross sections, they have managed to evade some of the most advanced radars in the U.S. Air Force – the F-22’s AN/APG-77. According to a report from the commander of the U.S. 95th Reconnaissance Squadron commander stationed at UAE Al-Dhafra airbase, Raptors are unable to effectively track Russian Su-30 and Su-35 fighters in Syria. The F-22’s inability to detect the Sukhoi fighters at range effectively annuls the advantage of its stealth capabilities. In beyond visual range combat this leaves neither fighter able detect the other, a significant advantage for the Sukhoi as it guarantees combat will occur at short ranges where it retains several advantages. This of course assumes the Sukhoi does not coordinate with ground based radars, such as those at Russia’s Khmeimim airbase in Syria, which are more sophisticated and capable of detecting stealth fighters.
According to the Al-Dhafra airbase commander, the F-22 fighters have other significant drawbacks which have hindered their operational capabilities including a lack of infrared and optic capabilities to allow for night time tracking, a lack of helmet-mounted displays forcing pilots to actively look around to find other aircraft, and an inability to transfer data through the Link 16 tactical data exchange network and a resulting reliance on radio communication. The result is that, though it lacks ‘next generation’ stealth capabilities, the Su-35 may well overall exceed the capabilities of the F-22 – particularly when accounting for the Raptor’s extensive maintenance requirements and resulting long absences from the frontline. While there is no doubt that the F-22 is one of the world’s most capable combat platforms, it’s position as the world’s foremost air superiority fighter may well not be guaranteed in light of recent Russian technological developments and the Raptor’s demonstrated failures when operating in Syria in proximity to advanced Sukhoi platforms.