The F-22 Raptor is patrolling the skies over Syria even as U.S. officials wait for clues for what comes next from both the Russian military and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after last week’s cruise missile strike on Shayrat air base.
The stealthy fifth-generation fighter is flying as a precaution, officials first told The New York Times. The Air Force affirms the twin-engine jet made by Lockheed Martin Corp. is in the air to watch over U.S.-backed ground forces and collect intelligence on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.
“We have continued to maintain an air presence, including the use of F-22s, in Syrian airspace in order to protect forces on the ground and keep pressure on ISIS,” Lt. Col. John Sheets, spokesman for U.S. Air Forces Central Command, told Military.com on Monday.
Sheets said the service would not further disclose what additional measures the F-22 or other fighter jets are taking as part of the operation.
Officials await what comes after President Donald Trump gave the order early April 6 local time to launch 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles from two U.S. Navy destroyers toward the Syrian-held base. The Russian military is also operating from the base and Russian officials were warned ahead of the missile strike, the Pentagon said.
The F-22 was designed for air-to-air combat yet features unique stealth technology that allows it to operate over Syria with a lower risk of detection and closer than other coalition aircraft to enemy air-to-surface missiles.
The aircraft recently completed its 3.2A upgrade to enhance its electronic warfare, communications and identification systems, according to Lt. Col. Daniel, an F-22 pilot of the 95th Fighter Squadron at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida who recently spoke to Military.com at the installation.
“The stealth, the speed, the unfair amount of information the jet provides to us, really gives us an unfair, asymmetric advantage both in training exercises … and in combat,” the pilot said.
During a reporting trip to the base, Military.com interviewed a few pilots and a maintainer, who spoke on the condition that their last names not be used due to safety concerns amid ongoing air operations against ISIS.
While the F-22 was primarily envisioned as an air-to-air fighter, Daniel said the F-22 — like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter — can better target surface-to-air missiles and other threats on the ground because of increment 3.1 and 3.2 modifications on the jet.
The upgrades included a so-called SAR Map, or Synthetic Aperture Radar, “to better find targets on the ground, better radar software for both air-to-air and air-to-ground capabilities, and better capabilities with GBU-39, so small diameter bomb, which would be used in the full-spectrum of conflict,” he said.
The jet now fuses data from other fighters — such as fourth-generation F-16 jets — with information collection aircraft such as the E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System, or AWACS, via data link exchange networks like LINK 16.
“As a pilot, it’s very comforting to know that when you push across the line, and then turn the lights out at night, nobody sees me — I know exactly what they’re doing,” Daniel said.
Earlier this year, Daniel said the unit recently conducted night training with four B-2 Spirit stealth bombers, four F-35s and four F-22s at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. The goal was to replicate air-to-air and “very advanced surface-to-air threats,” he said.
Daniel said the training could apply to any scenario — whether in an advanced, high-end fight, or in a permissive environment like in Syria.
“There’s not too many places in the world that package couldn’t go and cause a lot of problems,” he said.