In Syria Russia wants to avoid helping the American F-22 fighter get its first combat experience. If that should happed it could cost Russia billions in lost export sales. Since late 2015 Russia has been showing off its new warplanes in Syria, particularly Su-34 fighter-bombers (similar to the American F-15E) and Su-35S fighters (low budget competition for the F-35) as well as electronic warfare systems like the Tu-204 (similar to the American RC-135) and helicopter gunships. Russia also has many of its latest (and most exportable) anti-aircraft systems in Syria, All these weapons have performed well so far. Because of that Russian state controlled media has pointed out that campaign in Syria is a wise business investment. That’s because most of the half billion dollars the Syrian operation has cost Russia so far has gone to keep the aircraft flying. But that is now expected to bring in over $7 billion in additional arms sales. That is the result of new Russian weapons gaining credibility because of the combat experience. This makes it easier to get export sales and always has. But all that is threatened if American and Russian warplanes tangle and Russia comes out second best. While the U.S. does not export the F-22, this aircraft is considered the premier warplane on the planet but so far it has not been in combat. Now the F-22 is showing up over Syria, usually to challenge Russian or Syrian warplanes that threaten NATO and Arab troops on the ground assisting Syrian rebels. Since mid-August the Americans have been sending out F-22s to confront Russian and Syrian warplanes.
This is all because Russian and Syrian warplanes have been bombing pro-American rebels, sometimes when American troops (commandos usually) were nearby. Until the F-22s showed up the Russians indicated they could handle any Western warplanes that challenged this. That confidence disappeared when the F-22s showed up.
This confrontation is all about the U.S. and Russia disagreeing on who is a legitimate target, especially when non-ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) rebels are involved. The Americans consider non-ISIL rebels to be “friendlies” whereas the Russians consider nearly all rebels (the main exception being Kurds) as “hostile” and legitimate targets. While both Russian and American warplanes are officially in Syria to destroy ISIL, the Russians are mainly there to protect Syrian government forces and their allies (mainly Shia mercenaries supplied by Iran).
Throughout August there were a growing number of incidents where Russian or Syrian warplanes attacked, or sought to attack rebels that were working with Western commandos. The U.S. told Russia and Syria to back off and that there would be violence and even a, for all intents and purposes, “no-fly zone” over parts of Syria. American officials insisted that this would not turn into a true no-fly zone but would result in lost Syrian or Russian warplanes if Western troops were harmed. So far it has been all threats and no action.
While there are not many F-22s in service both the Chinese and Russians have learned enough about the F-22 to respect it. If the F-22 got a chance to defeat the latest Russian systems in combat that might lead to more being built. In 2012 the 187th, and last, F-22 fighter was completed. The manufacturer did not scrap or sell off the tools and equipment used to produce the F-22 but put this gear into storage in the hope that production may resume eventually. Getting some combat experience would help but so far the F-22 has not had any aside from dropping smart bombs. In the last year it has performed as a bomber over Iraq and Syria, carrying out two percent of the bombing sorties and delivering two percent of the smart bombs.
No one else has F-22s because Congress passed a law forbidding the export of the F-22 fighter. Three nations (Australia, Japan, and Israel) sought to buy some. Efforts to change the law have failed. At one time there was a similar prohibition to the export of the F-16 and that law was changed. One reason for the law was the fear that F-22 technical and operational secrets would fall into the hands of a hostile power that would then build more than 200 of them.
The F-22 has a performance that is far superior to that of any other aircraft in service, which is why several foreign air forces would like some. The combination of speed, advanced electronics, and stealth technology has created such a decisive advantage that F-22s are often matched up against as many as six F-15s to ensure their pilots face a challenge during training. So why is the F-35, with somewhat lower performance, getting all the export orders?
The first reason is price. The F-22 costs up to $200 million each (without even counting the huge R&D costs). The F-35 costs up to half as much (although that edge is eroding). This is one reason the U.S. is pushing exports of the F-35. This is why many more F-16s were exported, compared to the F-15. In any event, the F-35 will outclass a Rafale, F-15E, or Eurofighter, but not the F-22. The U.S. Air Force intended the F-22 to be part of a high-end/low-end mix with the F-35, much like the F-15 and F-16 were the combination in the 1990s, only the F-22/F-35 combination will be much harder to detect and defend against.
The U.S. Air Force saw export sales as a way to keep the F-22 production line active, giving it more time to persuade Congress to allow more to be built for the U.S. That did not work. Despite the high cost of the F-22, Russia is developing the similar T-50, and China the similar J-20. But neither of these aircraft is as capable, or as expensive, as the F-22. Neither of these aircraft is in service. The F-22 began development in the late 1980s, first flew in 1997, and entered service in 2005. The F-22 is expected to remain in service for at least 30 years. And for much of that time the F-22 will be the best, if also the least numerous, jet fighter on the planet. During that time many American fighter pilots believe the stealth advantage will be lost due to new technology. China, Russia, and the Europeans will continue developing new combat aircraft designs and the appearance of unmanned fighters would change the situation most dramatically of all.