Was that a Lackluster F-22 Debut?

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The F-22’s combat debut –- the twin-engine stealth fighter was used in anger against Islamic State (IS) extremists gaining footholds in Syria and Iraq early Sept. 23 in a wave of air strikes -– was not the dazzle many had expected. After years of hearing the refrain of the F-22’s purpose to “kick down the door” (thank you Gen. John Jumper, former USAF chief of staff) of air defenses, clearing the way for other assets to do business in an air battle, many probably expected the F-22’s debut to be just that.

This refrain was drilled into staffers’ (and reporters’) heads on Capitol Hill as the Air Force fought to keep the program alive for years. And, for its high cost -– some estimate it is a $66 billion program -- let’s face it: many of us hoped for a debut that would draw on its sexy stealth capabilities or rumored dazzling electronic warfare (EW) prowess.

But, the Raptor’s first recorded kill was not emblemized by a photo of a smoldering MiG shot down in the dark of night. Rather, the Pentagon showed us a hole in the top of a building that defense officials said was a command and control center for forces in Raqqah, IS’s self-declared capital. A defense official now confirms that the F-22 used in this historic strike employed a GBU-32, a 1,000 lb. Joint Direct Attack Munition.

Before and after F-22 strike, US Defense Dept. 

The use of the F-22 nine years after it was declared operational raises an interesting question. Why now? We at Aviation Week won’t be the first or the only ones to opine on this subject. But, I wanted to get the talk started with our readers.

The air campaign that began this week over Syria was carried out in what Lt. Gen. William Mayville, director of operations for the Joint Staff described as “passive” air defenses.

Syria, however, is purported to possess decent air defenses –- some possibly integrated. And, we’ve not heard anything about Syrian air countering coalition assets. Arguably, this is a unique diplomatic backdrop for the debut of an asset designed at great cost to sneak in and out of air defenses and defeat any fighter that takes it on in the skies. The U.S. informed the Syrian government the strikes were coming by direct communication and there was no secret what was going to happen if you saw the news in the last few weeks. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is annoyed by IS, and we are providing a good pest control service. So, it is unlikely Syrian forces were going to engage coalition assets unless we went after certain national assets in Syria. Even then, it would be a gesture at best.

So, I wonder why was the F-22 used? Any number of assets can drop a 1,000 lb. Jdam, especially when the door that would need kicking down is wide open or, at the very least, slightly ajar. Did the aircraft’s sensors have some sort of classified effect? Was there an EW capability that, perhaps, we’ll find out about in months? Did someone in the chain of command just decide it was time to get the damn thing into the fight?

In the briefing, the closest explanation we got was from Mayville. “What we were looking at was the effects we wanted to see on the target areas and what platforms in the region would be best suited to do that,” he said during a Sept. 23 briefing. “We had a large menu of targets to strike from, and then we chose from there. 
So, it's less the platform than it is the effects we seek, and then it's what platform can deliver those effects. That's really the job of the [combined air operations center].”

We know the cause … I’m wondering what was the effect.

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