A F-22 Raptors of the United States Air Force stole the world’s eyes on Saturday after shooting down the alleged Chinese spy balloon that hovered over North America for days. Interestingly, it was the first air-to-air kill for the fifth-generation fighter since its debut in combat in 2014. Something that is quite striking, if we consider that the Lockheed Martin aircraft has already had active participation in war conflicts.
The use of the US stealth fighter in this mission has not been without its derision, even within the aviation community itself. The above, because his first air-to-air death it was not against a rival with challenging characteristics —and supposedly similar—like a Russian Sukhoi Su-57 or a Chinese Chengdu J-20, but basically against an object that is incapable of resisting.
It is clear that the memes that have circulated on the web since last weekend do not detract from the operation. The use of the F-22 Raptor to shoot down the alleged Chinese spy balloon was not on a whim, but out of necessity. The conditions of the flight of the intruding object, which the Asians claim was nothing more than a weather balloon gone off course, they were defiantand no other USAF fighter in service was capable of getting high enough to intercept it.
As reported by the United States Department of Defense, the F-22 Raptor that shot down the Chinese balloon belonged to the 1st Fighter Wing at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. The fifth generation fighter fired an AIM-9X Sidewinder missile from about 58,000 feet (almost 18,000 meters), when the target was sailing at an altitude of between 60,000 and 65,000 meters (18,000 to 21,300 meters, approximately).
The wreckage of the Chinese equipment washed up less than 10 kilometers off the South Carolina coast, with no injuries reported. Yesterday, the United States Navy began the process to recover the remains of the water for further analysis and study.
Why did the F-22 Raptor use a missile and not its 20mm ammunition?
As soon as it became known that the alleged Chinese spy balloon was flying over US territory, there was much speculation about how it could be shot down. In fact, we tell you in hypertextual In principle, the task was presented as practically impossible. Not only because the balloon flew at 90,000 feet, out of reach of any fighter, even an F-22 Raptor. If not because when it began to descend and become more visible to the naked eye, was still over populated areas. So an attempt to demolish it could represent a major danger to the public.
The choice of weapons also represented a challenge, due to the characteristics of the target to be attacked. MIM-104 Patriot surface-to-air missiles can shoot down high-altitude objects, but are not designed to hit objects that do not have motion relative to the wind. Therefore, the only option was to wait for the supposed Chinese spy balloon to reach the coast, and attempt a takedown over water.
At the height that it was flying on Saturday, things were already more “simple” for the F-22 Raptor. In the videos broadcast on TV and on social networks, it can be seen how the pilot of the fifth-generation fighter circles his target a couple of times before placing himself in an attack position. Once the AIM-9X Sidewinder was released, it was just question of seconds until the Chinese equipment was destroyed and fell hopelessly into the water.
One of the big questions left by the event was why an attempt was not made to blow up the balloon. with 20 mm ammunition of the F-22 Raptor’s rotary cannon, instead of using a heat-seeking missile. According to the writer and former military aviator C. W. Lemoinethis would be because the use of the AIM-9X offered a higher “kill chance”.
“A balloon of this caliber is not something you can just pop. If you just poke holes in it, it will stay up in the air. In fact, it is likely to become even more unpredictable, because it’s going to start a slow descent, depending on how big the holes are. We are talking about 20-millimeter ammunition, which does not matter if they are incendiary and high-explosive. You just can’t reliably shoot down a balloon with a 20-millimeter burst, and that’s the problem. You have a very small area in which you need to interact with this item and make sure you knock it down. And you can’t just sit there and try to shoot it at 60,000 feet above the ground, which is a high altitude for any plane,” he explained.
The expert indicated that the choice of the AIM-9X to carry out the attack from the F-22 Raptor was the most logical. Although he acknowledged that he did not know if the missile could fix the target on the balloon, due to its characteristics, he did believe that the shot had been made on the equipment it was carrying. Thus, he would have taken advantage of the combination of the cold air in the environment with the reflectivity generated by the solar panels of the Chinese device to adjust the aiming point and attempt the shot. It is worth mentioning that the Sidewinder has a fragmentation warhead that is detonated when approaching its target, maximizing its destructive power.
The first air-to-air kill of the F-22 Raptor
As we already said, the F-22 Raptor today is the spearhead when it comes to talking about fifth-generation fighters. The Lockheed Martin aircraft has become the jewel of the United States Air Force thanks to its stealth technology, its great maneuverability due to the use of vector thrust, and its Super Cruise capability; that is, to fly steadily at supersonic speeds without the need to use the afterburners. American authorities they are very jealous of their star planethe export of which is prohibited by law to prevent the disclosure of its secret systems.
Despite being one of the deadliest aircraft in the world, it was very curious that he did not register any air-to-air deaths in all his years of service. And not for lack of action, certainly. Although the F-22 Raptor was introduced in 2005, it achieved Full Operational Capability in 2007. But its combat debut only came in 2014, when the USAF used it as a bomber during the Syrian civil war. In its early missions, the stealth fighter was harnessed for GPS-guided 1,000-pound bomb strikes.
In Syria alone, the F-22 Raptor completed more than 200 missions, mostly bombing ground positions. Although it also fulfilled tasks providing close air support to the troops of the US Army and its allies. And while Lockheed Martin aircraft were also used to repel Russian, Syrian and Iranian aircraft during the conflict, never engaged in close air combat (dogfight) that would mean the demolition of an enemy.
It is also a reality that, prior to its baptism of fire on Syrian soil, the F-22 Raptor participated in multiple missions to intercept Russian bombers that were approaching United States airspace. But they were nothing more than close encounters that historically both powers have carried out to provoke each other.
A goal that was made to wait almost 18 years
Prior to the downing of the Chinese spy balloon, one of the last official combat interventions of the stealth fighter occurred at the end of 2017. At that time, the aircraft returned to fulfill the role of bomber to attack opium plantations and processing facilities in Afghanistan, under Taliban control.
It took nearly 18 years from its introduction into service for the F-22 Raptor to score its first air-to-air kill. Against the most unexpected opponent, without a doubt, but possibly getting some other very interesting laurels. The Pentagon hasn’t confirmed it yet. but the shooting down of the Chinese balloon would be the air to air kill highest altitude in history; and it would also represent the first air-to-air shootdown over US soil.
As for the latter, let’s not forget that on September 11, 2001, United Airlines Flight 93 was reportedly shot down by two US Air Force F-16s. However, it is proven that this did not happen. It is true that two fighters were deployed for this mission under the orders of Vice President Dick Cheney, but the plane crashed after the passengers revolted against the hijackers, before they reached it. Also, the aircraft were not armed, so the only way to destroy the Boeing 757 was to crash into it.
But back to the central theme of this article, much remains to be said about the capabilities of the alleged Chinese spy balloon shot down by the F-22 Raptor. More details will surely be released when the Department of Defense completes the analysis of the wreckage salvaged from the water.
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