A grainy photo surfaced on social media on Monday that appears to show a U.S. Air Force F-22 squarely in someone’s crosshairs. Some research reveals that the image was originally posted on the Instagram account “Fighter_Bomber.” The image’s caption is in Russian. It describes how the image was taken using the infrared targeting cameras of the Su-35 multi-role fighter, perhaps Russia’s most capable fighter platform.
View this post on Instagram
So is it real?
Unlike the F-22, Russia’s Su-35 remains a purely 4th generation fighter that lacks any real stealth capability. But beyond the Su-35s stealth deficiencies, many consider the Russian jet’s acrobatic skills enough to still make it a formidable opponent for America’s top dog-fighter. Russia has even claimed to have scared F-22s off in Syria using their Su-35s, though those claims were quickly disregarded by American defense officials. Fictional or not, a Su-35 locking onto an F-22 doesn’t seem outside the realm of possibility.
The aircraft in the image does have the telltale diamond shape of an F-22, though the white box surrounding it would seem to suggest the image has been manipulated. Nonetheless, it’s entirely possible that this image was taken over Syria or near Alaska, where F-22s have been scrambled to intercept Russian Tu-95 long-range bombers and their fighter escorts before. However, based on the image (which seems to show land and roads beneath the F-22), it seems unlikely that the picture could have been taken near Alaska. Russian bombers and fighters always divert before entering into actual U.S. airspace, let alone before reaching land, and it’s unlikely that F-22s sent to intercept a Russian formation would have found themselves below or in front of the opponent.
What does it mean if it is?
The infrared targeting cameras housed in the nose of the Su-35 are designed to serve as a passive targeting system, sweeping an area as large as 56 miles for heat signs (that’s the only way a Su-35 could detect an F-22, whose stealth design and coating help prevent radar detection). Because the system is “passive” (unlike active radar arrays), it also reduces the likelihood of the Su-35 being detected by way of its targeting apparatus.
With all that said, this picture still doesn’t mean much, even if it’s real. Syrian airspace has been a cat and mouse battlefield for months. Occasionally, American fighters have interacted with Russian jets as the two nations support their local allies. Because the Su-35s OLS-35 infrared targeting apparatus can detect tail signatures from nearly 60 miles away, this “lock” could have occurred from any distance short of that (though the angle of the image suggests that it was closer). In short, the F-22 may have been just one of many jets operating in the vicinity and not have regarded the Su-35 as an active threat.
Conversely, it may indeed have been taken while a Su-35 and F-22 engaged in a mock dogfight. It’s possible that the Su-35 did indeed get the drop on the F-22. But it still wouldn’t mean much.
The F-22’s stealth advantage both limits an opponent’s ability to get a radar lock and also ensures that the F-22 is aware of the presence of enemy aircraft before they’re aware of it. In an actual fight, the chances are good that the F-22 would have engaged the Su-35 before it ever had a chance to show off.