F-22 - a great SEAD aircraft?


I encounter quite commonly the claim that the F-22 fighter would be able to penetrate well-developed anti-aircraft defence networks - and to attack them - like no other aircraft.

That seems quite strange to me, as it is a fighter, designed as fighter, equipped as fighter - and so very much unlike traditional SEAD/DEAD (suppression/destruction of enemy air defences).

I see two possible explanations:

1) It's a misleading or wrong claim, made to bolster the now historical lobbying for more F-22's.
We won't see this claim often repeated by producer and USAF if this was the case.

2) There's an altogether new approach to SEAD/DEAD.
That would be quite in conflict with the E/A-18G Growler, a technically younger aircraft from the same country with strong emphasis on traditional SEAD/DEAD.

Let's look at the F-22:

F-22 PRO effective SEAD/DEAD:

- The effective radar ranges of enemy air defences are reduced by its stealth.

- It has a payload of eight small diameter guided bombs (SDB), possibly to be exchanged for anti-radiation missiles (ARM).

- The F-22's radar and radar warning receiver avionics might be able to pick up ground based radar's emissions for direction-finding.

- The F-22's supercruise at high altitude reduces the effective range of surface-to-air missiles considerably.

- The F-22 has enough fuel to arrive as first and leave as last of many strike packages, enabling it as potential SEAD escort.

F-22 CONTRA effective SEAD/DEAD:

- The ARMs could not lock on radios as long as the weapons bay is closed.

- The ARMs could not assist in detection of radars (as when used on F-16) when the weapons bay is closed.

- Forget about stealth if the weapons bay is open for several seconds.

- The effect of supercruise at high altitude against SAM ranges should not be decisive against long-range missiles like S-300 or S-400 (SA-12, SA-21) that seem to bother U.S. Air Force officials the most.

- The F-22 was designed as fighter. Its stealth was likely optimized against the frequencies used by fighters. Its stealth might be much reduced against the powerful ground-based radars with their specific frequencies.
Occasional claims about good stealth properties for all relevant frequencies appear to be unjustified to me.

- The F-22 lacks a comprehensive SEAD/DEAD avionics package that differs the EA-18G "Growler" from the F/A-18F "Super Hornet".

- The F-22 lacks the electro-optical and infrared sensors needed for target identification in face of decoys around the radar and other air-defence related targets.

- The F-22 cannot carry bunker-busting munitions*. Its potential in this regard (use of pylons) is limited to a non-stealthy appearance (external storage). There's little reason to assume that the small diameter bombs could play a significant role in attacks on air defence C4 nodes (headquarters) due to the SDB's properties and the F-22's limited sensor capability to locate mobile HQs.

- Ground-based air defence radars can usually be switched off and be protected by many other means (link) in order to survive an ARM attack. Follow-on attacks with more versatile weapons (than ARMs) are unlikely unless the suppression lasts quite a while (won't happen with the fast-moving U.S. ARMs without apparent loiter capability) or the ARM is believed to have hit its target.

- The F/A-18E/F Super Hornet has an AESA radar and radar warning receivers just like the F-22. Its avionics package was designed for multi-role, not for air superiority only. The F/A-18E/F's avionics are mostly newer than the F-22's and closer to the SEAD mission, yet the USN still saw the need for a more dedicated SEAD/EW (electronic warfare) aircraft, the EA-18G "Growler". This implies to me that the F-22's avionic suite is likely falling very much short of the SEAD mission's requirements.

- - - - -

I consider this asserted supreme capability against high-quality air defence networks as unjustified and unrealistic sales hype. The EA-18G Growler is the real SEAD aircraft, and even that one is falling short of expectations because the Growler didn't get the new jamming pod yet that officials had hoped for.

It's quite disturbing that all those pundits, journalists, bloggers and forum users who wrote about the F-22's ability against air defence networks accepted the questionable claim at face value.

I guess that's how a hype works. You need many opinion multipliers who don't ask critical questions. I heard that works great for lobbyism as well.

P.S.: SDB can penetrate hardened aircraft shelters and similar weak hard targets, but no command bunkers.


  1. Related reading:

  2. I think it is more accurate to characterize the F-22 as "potentially a great SEAD aircraft".

    It would need planned upgrades to the (by all accounts) very capable ALR-94 RWR to incorporate precision emitter location functionality, and tie that in with enhanced SAR targeting.

    It is certainly far more survivable than other SEAD assets, even against high end threats.

    The F-22's stealth may be optimized for a narrower bandwidth range than the B-2, but SAM systems still use X-band and S-band for search and tracking. The F-22 was designed for this environment, not just for limited X-band A2A engagements (as appears to be the case with the F-35).

    The F-22's potential SEAD profile is not strictly comparable to dedicated SEAD/DEAD aircraft like the Growler and Prowler. It is more in line with the F-16CJ and F/A-18. In fact, each type (stealthy F-22s, dedicated aircraft, and multi-role SEAD/DEAD aircraft) brings something to the fight. They have complementary capabilities.

  3. Lockheed and the Air Force touted the F-22 being dual role (Fighter and Deep Penetration SEAD) This isn't entirely just revision.

    The F-22's radar was touted as being able to do some pretty impressive radar detection and jamming, even compared to dedicated SEAD aircraft. The problem is, that role was left for later blocks of F-22, and as far as I know, the code hasn't been written and the weapon (SDB) doesn't enter full production until next year. (how many years since the F-22 entered production?)