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    Stealth Guardians: How F-22 Raptors Defended a Predator Drone from Iranian F-4 Phantoms

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    A decade ago, an event reminiscent of a Cold War spy novel unfolded in the skies. A U.S. Air Force MQ-1 Predator drone found itself unexpectedly protected by an F-22 Raptor against Iranian F-4 Phantom IIs.

    This aerial encounter, following a failed attempt by Iranian Sukhoi Su-25s to shoot down another Predator, highlights the stark disparity in aerial warfare capabilities and showcases the stealthy prowess of the Raptor. The episode began with a seemingly routine surveillance mission by the MQ-1 Predator drone.

    FILE PHOTO — The F-22 is an air-superiority fighter with improved capability over current Air Force aircraft. From the inception of the battle, the F-22’s primary objective will be to establish air superiority through the conduct of counter air operations. The F-22 also has an inherent air-to-surface capability. A combination of improved sensor capability, improved situational awareness, and improved weapons provides first-kill opportunity against the threat. (U.S. Air Force photo)

    What the Iranian pilots did not anticipate as they set out in their antiquated F-4 Phantoms—a fighter with roots in the 1960s—was the stealth escort provided by not one, but two F-22 Raptors.

    The Raptors, operating undetected, escorted the Predator and positioned themselves advantageously against the Iranian aircraft, which were hopelessly outclassed both technologically and strategically.

    Update 5 AIM-9X Separation First guided launch. China Lake 1.2 M 19.5K 1G Test 722 Flight 132-339 Mission 10030.

    In a move akin to a scene from “Top Gun,” a Raptor performed a maneuver displaying not only its stealth but also its pilot’s boldness.

    The F-4s were outmatched – according to most reports of this event, the Iranians seemed completely unaware of the fifth-generation fighters’ presence.

    One Raptor even passed beneath the Iranian aircraft, identified the armament of the F-4, then ascended beside its left wing to assert its presence, transmitting to the Iranians, “You really should head home.”

    FILE PHOTO — An F-22 Raptor in full afterburner during flight testing at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. The Raptor is the replacement for the F-15 Eagle. It is the most advanced fighter aircraft in the world, combining a revolutionary leap in technology and capability with reduced support requirements and maintenance costs. The F-22’s integrated avionics gives it first-look, first-shot, first-kill capability that guarantees U.S. air dominance for decades. (U.S. Air Force photo)

    This brief radio exchange highlighted the undeniable superiority of the F-22, As previously reported by The National Interest’s Eli Fuhrman, “The incident demonstrates the impressive stealth characteristics of the Raptor, which was able to approach the two Iranian fighters undetected and scout out their arsenals, before scaring them off.”

    Despite only having 186 operational F-22 airframes, as reported by Harrison Kass, the Raptors continue to dominate the skies, drawing comparisons to their counterparts. For instance, the F-35 Lightning II, while technologically advanced and versatile in its own right, was never intended to be a dogfighting powerhouse like the F-22.

    As former Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh once articulated, the F-22 was designed for air superiority, while the F-35 was envisioned as a multipurpose, data-integration platform.

    The F-22 surpasses the F-35 in speed – MACH 2.2 compared to MACH 1.6 for the Lightning II. Although 30 percent heavier, the F-22 could be more agile thanks to its Pratt & Whitney F119 engines offering greater thrust (70,000 pounds) than the sole Pratt & Whitney F-135 engine on the F-35. The thrust vectoring of the F119 engine might further enhance the Raptor’s advantage in aerial battles with a superior thrust-to-weight ratio.

    Iran’s reliance on the F-4 Phantom, an aircraft first introduced during the Cold War, is emblematic of a broader issue within its air force—its inventory’s outdated nature. Despite efforts to enhance these aging platforms with domestic upgrades like the Qased 900kg electro-optic guided smart bombs, they simply cannot match next-generation counterparts. The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) aptly notes the Phantom’s primary role as an attack aircraft, even as it is outstripped by modern air defenses.

    A report from the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) suggests that the Iranian Air Force focuses on missions such as air intercept, ground attack, and close air support. Some of their aircraft are capable of mid-air refueling. The DIA highlights that Iran relies on the outdated F-4 as its main attack aircraft.

    The report mentions that Iran may use its regional proxies and limited air strike capability to target an adversary’s critical infrastructure for long-range strikes. While Iran’s F-4 Phantoms could be deployed against regional foes, they are considered less effective against modern air defenses compared to contemporary combat aircraft.

    Iran’s F-4 Phantoms, even with homegrown enhancements, stand little chance against a foe as advanced as the F-22 Raptor. The U.S. Air Force’s mastery of the skies, facilitated by its fleet of stealth aircraft, continues to hold significant implications for air superiority and national security.

    Relevant articles:
    Why Iran Still Flies the Ancient F-4 Phantom Fighter (Made in USA), nationalinterest.org
    The Air Force Only Has 186 F-22 Raptor Stealth Fighters, nationalinterest.org
    F-22 Raptor vs. F-35 Joint Strike Fighter: Which Is Better?, nationalinterest.org
    ‘You Ought to Go Home’: An F-22 Raptor Flew Under Iran’s F-4 Phantom Undetected, The National Interest, Nov 23, 2023

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