Roughly ten years ago, an F-22 successfully spoofed, intercepted, and intimidated an Iranian F-4 aircraft after the Iranian aircraft threatened a U.S. MQ-1 drone.
Iran’s Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution reportedly attempted to shoot down the US drone which was operating in international airspace about 16 miles from the Iranian coastline.
Following the incident, the F-22s were dispatched to rescue the drone from an Iranian attack and escort the platform home to a safe landing at a U.S. airbase. While many details were not made available at the time, and there may be elements of the encounter still not made available for security reasons, there were some additional specifics added about the incident from former U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh. Welsh, who provided details for a greater understanding of the issue. He told reporters that the fighter jet (F-22) was providing “HVAAE (High Value Air Asset Escort) for the drone which had come under attack.
F-22 vs F-4
Also, Walsh added that there were specific and highly significant details related to the F-22 escort and air transport, which might not have otherwise surfaced. Apparently, the F-22s use advanced vectoring capabilities and “stealth” to intimidate and warn the Russian 4th-generation aircraft.
“He [the Raptor pilot] flew under their aircraft [the F-4s] to check out their weapons load without them knowing that he was there, and then pulled up on their left wing and then called them and said ‘you really ought to go home’,” Welsh said in 2013, according to an essay in the Aviationist.
This is quite significant, as this F-22 maneuver appears to have taken place about a year prior to the F-22’s formal combat debut against ISIS in 2014. The encounter suggests that the F-22 is indeed capable of superior air-combat vectoring, aerial maneuvering, and “stealthy” kinds of approaches. Perhaps the combination of stealth, speed, and intense maneuvering gives the F-22 an unparalleled advantage when it comes to air superiority. Given that the F-22 was capable of “surprising” and intercepting the Iranian F-4s, and specifically able to send them home, it seems apparent that the F-22 is indeed capable of getting into position to destroy enemy aircraft in aerial combat. This would further reinforce the current belief that the F-22 is indeed the leading air-superiority platform in the world.
The other circumstance this highlights is the growing vulnerability of larger, non-stealthy surveillance drones when operating over high-threat or contested environments. However, while larger drones may seem more vulnerable, the Air Force and Pentagon have in recent years implemented a number of tactical and strategic adjustments to improve survivability for these platforms. Larger, medium, and high-altitude drones such as the Predator, Reaper, and Army Grey Eagle can use altitude and travel increasingly long-range and use high-fidelity sensors to elude detection from ground-based enemy air defenses.
In response to the Iranian threat against U.S. drones and other areas where larger surveillance drones such as a Global Hawk or Triton might also be at risk, senior Air Force commanders have been working with air combatant commanders to vary drone flight tactics. For example, the drones may fly less “predictable” routes with varying frequencies of drone missions as a tactical adjustment able to massively reduce the risk to larger, less-stealthy drones operating in contested environments.
Kris Osborn is the Military Affairs Editor of 19FortyFive and President of Warrior Maven – Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.