If you’ve been paying attention to our coverage of the developing situation in Syria in this past week, you know one thing – it’s bad and getting worse by the day. The Russian Bear has been poked, and they’re throwing their best at the problem.

The latest news out of Syria is that Russia has deployed its SA-21 “Growler” (S-400) surface to air missile system and SA-N-20 (S-300FM) “Gargoyle” naval SAM. In addition, its current air order of battle consists of Sukhoi Su-30SM Advanced Flankers and Su-34 Fullbacks.

In the wake of a Turkish shootdown of a Russian Su-24M, it’s clear that Russia has opted to secure the air picture for themselves. So why is this a bad thing?

Double-digit SAMs have long been a nightmare for 4th-Gen fighters. These systems have the ability to target and destroy even small Radar Cross-Section aircraft with almost no real ability to defend against them.

The Russian Navy's newest cruiser, equipped with the SA-N-20 "Gargoyle," is patrolling the waters of of Syria's Mediterranean shore. (AP/Reuters)
The Russian Navy’s newest cruiser, equipped with the SA-N-20 “Gargoyle,” is patrolling the waters of of Syria’s Mediterranean shore. (AP/Reuters)

The air picture isn’t much better. Advanced Flankers bring with them AESA radars, Vympel R-27 and R-77 air-to-air missiles. These are not the “turn and run” Iraqis or Syrians in MiG-29As with AA-10A “short-burn” missiles we’re used to fighting in wars past.

As Russian and American relations continue to be strained, the odds of a four-ship of Super Hornets/Vipers/Mud Hens going into Syria unopposed to strike Daesh targets are plummeting. The Russians have made it clear that they have an agenda in Syria, and while that agenda parallels US interests in some ways (against Daesh), it varies greatly in others (eliminating the Free Syrian Army and other anti-Assad rebels).

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So what are our options?

Well, as Tyson Wetzel pointed out in his no-B.S. analysis, the only safe (for our pilots) answer involves a much more robust SEAD package: F-16CJ Block 50/52 Super Weasels and EA-18G Growlers would be tasked with taking down the Russian IADS. F-22As and F-15Cs would be required to escort strikers, performing Offensive Counter Air sweeps to ensure the strike package can operate in country. This amounts to a full-up shooting war in the Middle East.

A loaded Minnesota ANG F-16CJ takes off during Sentry Savannah in February 2015
A loaded Minnesota ANG F-16CJ “Super Weasel” takes off during Sentry Savannah in February 2015. (Photo by Jonathan Derden)

NATO politics aside, Russia has just turned the entire Eastern Mediterranean into a denied, non-permissive environment. It’s a buzz phrase you may have seen before in literature about the F-35 when everyone said “we don’t need that for fighting insurgents” as they ranted against the F-35’s usefulness. Well, guess what? We do now.

Critics are right in saying the A-10C is superior in CAS in a permissive environment. They can loiter, shoot the awesome The Gun, and strike fear into the hearts of the Daesh fighters all day long; but, when it comes to operating in a double-digit SAM MEZ with a muddy air picture? Good luck.

This is exactly what the Lockheed-Martin F-35 Lightning II was designed for.

A combat-coded F-35A Lightning II taxis to park at Hill Air Force Base, Utah. (Photo by Scott Wolff)
A combat-coded F-35A Lightning II taxis to park at Hill Air Force Base, Utah. (Photo by Scott Wolff)

Okay, F-35 haters, before the torches and pitchforks come out, let me provide a bit of background: I just spent two weeks working with a group of very capable Top Gun patch wearers responsible for the initial training for Navy F-35C pilots. I had the opportunity to sit in on a capabilities brief, crawl around the airplane, and see the aircraft in action firsthand. I’m not reading any of this from a Lockheed-Martin brochure here, and they (still) are not paying us.

Every aircraft has strengths and weaknesses. This aircraft is not going to be the magic bullet in American airpower–contrary to what some might have us believe; however,  it is a very capable platform that has made a lot of improvements over previous generations. Its technology has also trickled down into those older generations as well, and thankfully so.

One thing that stood out to me in talking to these pilots is the overarching theme that coverage of their jet has been unfair to the point of being downright dishonest. Test reports have been taken completely out of context by people who have no idea what they’re even reading. Problems have been exaggerated for political gain. People have written it off before they’ve even seen it in action – or even seen it in person at all. And I agree.

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A Lockheed-Martin F-35C Lightning II naval variant sits aboard the U.S.S. Dwight D. Eisenhower during the recent “DT II” period. (Photo by Jonathan Derden)

We’ve applied an old standard to an aircraft that is new in scope–on every level. Never before has the Department of Defense tasked a manufacturer with creating an aircraft with 75% commonality over three branches of service and nearly a dozen countries. That’s not just one aircraft – that’s several different fighters sharing one name.

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Don’t get me wrong, I think the program has problems. The F-35B is nearly a disaster. Almost every compromise made for the aircraft across the board can be traced back to the insistence of the Marines to have a STOVL model. And because of the commonality, the A and C models had to share the pain. Take the B model away and all of these jets are IOC right now.

The international partners, although great for cost sharing, have been a thorn in the Air Force’s side as well. With the F-22, Lockheed had to deal with one customer – the U.S. Even it had its problems, but not to the level the F-35 has had in working Foreign Materiel Sales into such a huge program. And every time there has been a change, they’ve all had to be in on it. How do you say Nightmare in Dutch?

The Navy has gotten away relatively unscathed in the deal. No other countries have ordered the F-35C, and they are only ordering 260 aircraft. Although this is the reason for the increased cost per unit over other variants; it’s the way it should be in my opinion. The Navy is doing it right on both accounts.

Even the Lockheed-Martin F-22A Raptor, the world's only operational 5th-Generation fighter, has had its problems. (Photo by Jonathan Derden)
Even the Lockheed-Martin F-22A Raptor, the world’s only operational 5th-Generation fighter, has had its problems. (Photo by Jonathan Derden)

As I mentioned above, the FMS side of the F-35 is a logistical nightmare. Being able to develop your own aircraft without going through Level I-III partners is huge. It cuts down the complication, the fixes, and the costs. It also allows for US-only technology. That’s a big plus.

The second thing I like is that they only ordered 260. More is not always better. In this case, I agree with the concept. With these lower numbers, the Navy has made the F-35C an aircraft that is used as a day one fighter. It’s the quarterback in a much bigger battle space, using its LO and sensors to go where Super Hornets can’t. This allows for more aircraft overall (as long as they Navy can keep their Super Hornets from aging out, and keep buying more, which is another discussion altogether). Because on Day 35 of the war, you need bomb trucks and missile wagons, not stealth fighters penetrating a double-digit SAM MEZ.

So how does that apply today?

The U.S. won’t get into a shooting war with Russia over Syria. We’re not flying enough sorties to warrant it, and right now, our resolve isn’t high enough to risk starting a war. But with the F-35 in theater, we could effectively continue to attack Daesh.

Low-observability technology is not the be-all, end-all and can be defeated, but in a battlespace like Syria, it could help tremendously. The F-35 has an impressive electronic warfare suite to help defend against what LO can’t do. It has sensors that can detect missile launches and help the pilot defend against them. It also has a Synthetic Aperture Radar that can be used to help find targets in country while keeping tabs on the air picture.

A Northrop-Grumman B-2A Spirit prepares to launch for an Offensive Counter Air (OCA) mission during U.S. Air Force Weapons School class 13-A.
A Northrop-Grumman B-2A Spirit prepares to launch for an Offensive Counter Air (OCA) mission during U.S. Air Force Weapons School class 13-A. (Photo by Scott Wolff)

And unlike a B-2A, if detected, it can defend itself against airborne threats. A strike package of F-22s and F-35s is exactly what’s needed in a situation where we want to impose our will without risking a shooting war with testy neighbors in the region.

The Syrian battlespace is a roadmap to the future. I think we’re back to the Cold War days of global superpowers choosing sides, but this time we have a third player that’s enjoying every minute of it in Daesh. Historically permissive environments will give way to very dangerous SAMs and air-to-air threats.

The F-35 is the right aircraft for that job. Very dedicated fighter pilots are working tirelessly to make this aircraft a viable tool in the US arsenal. Once the smoke clears and the politics are put to bed, we’ll start to see that the planners were on the right track – planning for the next war.

The only problem is that the next war is here, and until the F-35 reaches its full combat capability, we’ll have to make do with what we have available to us.

(Featured photo by Scott Wolff)