The F-22 Over Syria: Efficiency and Effectiveness

After being criticized for not using the F-22 Raptor previously, the U.S. Air Force has now taken a drubbing for using F-22s over Syria, in the coalition fight against the Islamic State. Critics are judging long-term strategic investments based on short-term tactical results, while misapplying the distinction between efficiency and effectiveness. The sound bites may play well, but critiquing excess capabilities in the air over ISIS targets in Syria is short-sighted armchair quarterbacking.


Efficiency and Effectiveness

A common clever pair of definitions for efficiency and effectiveness claims the former is “doing things right,” while the latter is “doing right things.” A more helpful contrast juxtaposes the former’s focus on resources and the latter’s focus on results. In that sense, efficiency is about minimizing the resources we use while completing tasks, while effectiveness is about maximizing how those tasks contribute to achieving our objectives.

As a crude example, I am very efficient when taking a nap. Napping requires very few resources. But napping also accomplishes nothing, except making me feel rested afterward and perhaps better prepared for some more useful subsequent task. On the other hand, I could be very effective getting to the movies across town in my Lamborghini Veneno Roadster (if I had one), but it would not be very efficient to a) spend $5.6 million to be able to top out at 220 mph after accelerating from 0-60 in 2.9 seconds, and then b) use that kind of capability only to drive five miles to the movies on roads with speed limits of less than I can reach in three seconds.

The seeming lack of efficiency in using the $150 million F-22 in air operations over Syria has generated criticism for the Air Force like what I get from my wife for talking about buying a Lamborghini. But we should not be so fast assuming the criticisms are equally appropriate.

When we conceive, design, build, procure, deploy, and employ weapon systems, we should be calculating the odds against our most dangerous potentialadversariesin order to make even those adversaries actually unworthy in every way.


As an extreme example of military efficiency, we could almost entirely eliminate the cost of sustaining our national defense by disbanding the standing U.S military altogether and replacing it with a strictly on-call militia equipped to fight only with whatever weapons and skills each patriot could independently bring from home when needed. Unfortunately, the first time it was seriously tested, that kind of efficient military would also prove completely ineffective, because it would lose. We might as well have no military at all.

National security mathematics in the world in which we actually live means a “no-cost” military would come at the extremely high cost of diminished American prosperity and even lost American independence. We should certainly want our military to be as efficient as practical, but, assuming America’s survival is important, efficiency is trumped by the fact that we literally cannot afford for our military to be ineffective. The irony sets in when we acknowledge that our enemies around the world actually get deciding votes with regard to determining the effectiveness we should buy.


Unworthy Adversaries

That being said, what about F-22s over Syria? In Michael Peck’s criticism of F-22 use over Syria, he says, “A true test of a worthy aircraft is a worthy adversary, a label that does not quite apply to Syria.” He goes on to suggest that F-22s are like battleships after their unchallenged heyday: Too expensive to risk with capabilities that therefore could not be used. But the U.S. Air Force did risk F-22s over Syria – albeit not surprisingly with no losses, as I think all Americans would have hoped. The Raptor’s full capabilities are ready to be employed at a moment’s notice in a way that renders unworthy even our most capable current adversaries anywhere in the world, which is, by the way, exactly how we should want it.

Almost none of the aircraft the Air Force has employed in combat during the last decade were designed at the high end of their capabilities for the kind of counter-insurgencies we have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. This includes the storied A-10, whose titanium armor, Gatling gun, and 30-mm depleted uranium bullets were packaged together in the 1970s to counter the hordes of Soviet tanks which then threatened our allies in Europe.

The Afghan Taliban had no highly-defended tank columns, but coalition forces wisely fought the Taliban with A-10s anyway. ISIS and their unwilling Syrian hosts don’t have the technologically-advanced air defenses F-22s were designed to penetrate and destroy, but coalition forces are wisely fighting ISIS in Syria with F-22s anyway. In both cases, we have used our superior systems to deliver capabilities we wanted in the fight  including the F-22’s unique networking capabilities even though we did not buy the full extent of those capabilities for those fights in particular. In other words, we already owned the Lamborghini to win at LeMans, so we used it for the annual Big Bend Open Road Race too.

In my mind, that approach is both effective and efficient, especially since the F-22s in question were already forward-deployed to the Central Command theater for other reasons. Employing them over Syria against ISIS would have been inefficient only if it meant not having F-22s available for operations that were more critical elsewhere an important consideration, given that the Air Force was allowed to buy only 123 combat-coded copies.


Current Effectiveness Means Longterm Efficiency

When we conceive, design, build, procure, deploy, and employ weapon systems, we should be calculating the odds against our most dangerous potential adversaries, now and in the future, in order to make even those adversaries actually unworthy in every way. This was the Air Force’s logic when it produced and fielded the F-22, and it is the Joint Force’s logic now, as it produces and fields the F-35 for the Air Force, the Navy, and the Marine Corps. Any other approach to doing the business of national security is not doing that business at all. If we are not effective, we cannot be helpfully efficient.

It would have been ludicrous to buy F-22s to fight only ISIS, but it makes total sense to have bought them for other fights and then to employ them against ISIS. This is true even as we must acknowledge that it will take much more – and much different –  than just F-22s to defeat ISISAs Chris Miller recently pointed out, over the last decade, “the ‘light footprint,’ ‘economy of force,’ and ‘no boots’ mentality” has meant not smaller, cheaper, more manageable wars, but exactly the opposite. The threats from ISIS and from any other adversary to the U.S. and our allies will be countered both most effectively and most economically only with a carefully choreographed combination of F-22s and all kinds of other things, a combination that delivers the capabilities needed sooner rather than later.

That national security choreography should always consider options that include a) boots in the air in the cockpits of all our manned combat aircraft, including F-22s; b) boots on the ground in Special Forces and all our other ground combat units; c) boots at sea in all our ships and submarines; d) boots in the States and around the globe on operators remotely employing airborne and spaceborne systems with no boots in them at all; and e) boots and other kinds of shoes on the ground in civilian capacities of all kinds. That being said, the threat from ISIS should never be bad enough to push our twelve-cylinder, 400 cubic-inch engine anywhere close to its redline, unless we leave the car and its fast-shifting seven-speed, five-mode transmission parked in the garage until we can’t avoid racing it out into the open, because the beautiful, spacious garage we built is somehow “suddenly” burning down.


[Photo: Flickr CC: US Air Force]


After retiring as an Air Force colonel in 2013, Eric Jorgensen served the National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force as a Senior Research Analyst. In his final military assignment, Eric was Chief of the Total Force Enterprise Management division in the Air Force Directorate of Strategic Planning in the Pentagon. He is a pilot with more than 4,000 military flying hours in aircraft including the F-111F, the F-15E, and the KC-135R.



  1. John Boyd 14 October, 2014 at 14:52 Reply

    The F-22 is not needed at all in Syria or Iraq. ISIS lacks an air force and has at best very rudimentary AA missile systems which are easily defeated with current ECM systems.

    That is why our coalition “allies” have had no problems using their standard F-15s and F-16s.

    Even the much maligned A-10s are quite capable against ISIS and their unsophisticated air defense capabilities.

    The F-22 being used against ISIS is much like using your Lamborghini to transport freight, deliver pizzas, or as a bus – much less payload at much higher cost and with attributes that are not suited to the current mission environment.

    • Mike M. 14 October, 2014 at 15:07 Reply

      Agreed, it would be more efficient and cost effective to just have a few B-1 or B-52 strikes, rather than using all of these fighters let alone the F-22

    • Chris Miller 14 October, 2014 at 18:33 Reply

      Clearly neither of you read the article or did not understand it if you did. The author clearly explains at length why the both of you are wrong and why the use of the F22 is efficient and effective.

      • Mike M. 14 October, 2014 at 18:59 Reply

        No, I did read the article and I understand they are deployed in theater, so they could be used, however from a pure mission planning perspective ( putting bombs on target) they are neither cost effective or efficient. No fighter is, compared to a single sortie by a bomber.

        What’s the goal here, to put bombs on target correct? Or more importantly to use PGMs on specific targets is it not?

        The F-22 can carry 2 1000lb JDAMs in it’s internal bay plus the 2 AMRAAM or Sidewinders, which they wouldn’t need for air to ground. It’s not like they can load up more JDAMs.

        Now compare that to one B-1 sortie
        The B-1 can carry up to 76,ooolb in it’s internal bomb bays

        Take your pick with JDAMS, JASSM or JSOW
        24× GBU-31 JDAM GPS guided bombs (Mk-84 GP or BLU-109 warhead)
        15× GBU-38 JDAM GPS guided bombs (Mk-82 GP warhead)
        48x GBU-38 JDAM (using rotary launcher mounted multiple ejector racks)
        48x GBU-54 LaserJDAM (using rotary launcher mounted multiple ejector racks)
        24× AGM-154 Joint Standoff Weapon (JSOW)
        24× AGM-158 Joint Air to Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM)

        I don’t know how many F-22s are deployed in theater right now, but just using the JDAM loadout for comparison

        1 B-1 on a single sortie would equal 24 F-22s on a single sortie or more than likely the full squadron on several sorties

        The B-1 is fully capable of striking multiple targets in a single sortie.

        If they are not already forward deployed at Diego Garcia, that’s not a problem to deploy a squadron.

        So you tell me what’s a more efficient use of resources in this case, considering we’re striking ground targets in a uncontested air environment with little to no air defenses against low value targets e.g. ground troops, trucks, cars, some buildings, camps, etc?

        If you think the B-1 would be too expensive or overkill, we could just as easily get the job done with a squadron of A-10s (A-10c can use the JDAM by the way) and carry more ordinance that the F-22 and could certainly operate in this airspace environment, just like we did in Afghanistan and previously in Iraq.

        Air Mission planning is about using the right tool for the right job. The F-22 in this case is not the right tool for the job at hand

        Now if our mission were flying into Iranian air space to attack their suspected underground facilities used for their nuclear program that are protected by layered air defenses, they we can certainly discuss how the F-22 would be one of the right assets for that role

        For ISIS targets however, it’s not

        • Chris Miller 14 October, 2014 at 20:54 Reply

          So in short, for you its simply about more bombs. If you look at the targets currently being engaged (mostly static compounds) one or two PGMs are doing the trick so the F22’s load is sufficient. If the mission changes to one of constant on-station bombing and CAS to repel massed ISIS troops, you’ll have an argument for the A10 and AH-64, both of which are likely to see action. However, especially in Syria, most of the targets have been static, hardened compounds in or near urban terrain. 1-2 PGMs have been sufficient to engaged such targets, avoid collateral civilian casualties, and minimize risk to US flight crews. Remember that ISIS does not have a strong or proven air defense capability (though there is some evidence they’ve got some AA weapons); BUT Assad’s forces do have AA capability–Russian-made equipment similar to that used by pro-Russia rebels to shoot down Ukrainian government aircraft. There was/is no guarantee Assad’s forces won’t use its AA capabilities against US air assets. Using the F22’s stealth tech to protect US aircrews was the right call.

          • Mike M. 15 October, 2014 at 13:08

            No, it’s not just about more bombs.

            I was simply pointing out payload capacity, because of the comments on being efficient.

            And if you want to talk about risk to aircrews, then wouldn’t it be better to send in one Bomber with and EW escort rather than a squadron of fighters? 1 aircraft and a crew of 4 vs how many fighters and crew to attack the same amount of targets.

            1 B-1 or B-2 could just as easily fly in undetected and hit the same amount of targets and be out of the area safely
            You increase the risk of losing an aircraft and crew when you send in more aircraft and have more sorties over the same target area.

            Let’s talk about Syrian Air defense for a momment, yes there was/is no guarantee that they would not try and take a shot at any of our aircraft, however, this isn’t our first rodeo in the area.

            We haven’t used the F-22 before in theater and all of our other aircraft seemed to work just fine. We’re not exactly flying without any EW capability here. Every aircaft can carry jamming pods and we have the Growlers.

            Plus it’s not like we are using the F-22 exclusively, and what are our allies flying on those same missions, hmmm perhaps F-16s that we’ve been selling them and training them to use the last 20 years.

  2. Mungus 14 October, 2014 at 19:02 Reply

    Sometimes, a weapon is just as efficient for what it prevents as for what it conquers. That we have shown the F22 to be operational and effective and that we are willing and able to use it may give other potential enemies cause for second thought. A weapon that prevents a fight is just as effective as a weapon that wins a fight but more efficient in that we have saved the cost of using it. Will Iran be so eager to fight knowing that F22’s are in the area and operational? I think not, they have nothing to effectively counter it, indeed, they would struggle to counter the “legacy” aircraft that we would also use against them. The threat of a weapon with much more than the required capability is a very real and very effective deterrent. As such, the F22 may be more efficient than casual observation would suggest.

  3. Wash Phillips 14 October, 2014 at 21:27 Reply

    The various naysayers above apparently did not read the widely-published composition of the attacks on ISIS in Syria in major media. Had they done so, they might have gotten some key points, resulting in a different outlook.

    Point A: So far as we know, the F-22s were ONLY used over Syria in attacking ISIS.

    Point B: There–in Syria–they were the leading edge of the sortie package(s) composed of other combat aircraft such as mentioned above.

    Point C: Syria has widely-respected anti-aircraft capability purchased largely from the Russians. It was unclear whether Assad could/would to attempt to down US/coalition aircraft in Syrian airspace (even though the anti-ISIS mission is of value to Assad’s regime over the short haul, at least) just to flex his muscles/to assert his sovereignty/to spite those demanding his gas WMDs.

    Crucial Point D: F-22s–with their state-of-the-art stealth capability–if threatened by Syrian AA could eliminate those points of attack and thus protect the rest of the strike force. Should Assad launch fighter aircraft–a long shot–Raptors could likely dispatch those, too.

    From what we’ve been told, Syrian AA response was limited or nonexistent. No aircraft were lost. So the F-22s did their job on the leading edge.

    Additional note: It’s true that a stealthy F-117 was shot down in Kosovo, targeted by an older (low frequency?) Soviet-built radar. And the Russians are developing and selling to its arms clients adaptations of that earlier generation of radars. I don’t know if Syria has such equipment now, but aerial jamming (typically by Navy Prowlers or Growlers) can reduce some of that risk to our attacking force.

    Note also that the missions were flown–it’s suggested–at 30,000 feet or above, out of the altitude range of shoulder-mounted AA missiles (manpads). That’s another reason A-10s (someone mentioned above) might not be employed from Kuwait or other proximity basing, since they operate closer to the ground.

    • Mike M. 15 October, 2014 at 13:23 Reply

      F-117 was shot down by a barrage of missiles from an SA-3 battery, not exactly state of the art even then, when it comes to air defense systems

      Naturally this is date and priot to the start of the civil war, but the Syria Air Defense Force was equipped with
      320 Lavochkin CP-75 Dvina/S-75M Volga (SA-2) launchers
      148 Isayev S-125 Neva/S-125M Pechora (SA-3) launchers
      48 S-200 Angara (SA-5) launchers
      200 2K12 Kub (SA-6) launchers
      60 9K33 Osa (SA-8) launchers
      20 9K31 Strela-1 (SA-9) launchers
      35 9K35 Strela-10 (SA-13) launchers
      20+8 9K37 Buk М1-2+Buk М2 (SA-11) launchers
      6 9M311-1M Tunguska (SA-19) launchers
      50 Pantsir-S1 (SA-22) launchers
      + AAA and of course all the associated radars
      So yes, at it’s peak they had a robust IADs systems

      However 3+ years of civil war, and with the sanctions against them, there is no telling (at least through open sources) the current state of their air defense network.

      However, that’s not to say that the F-22 is the only aircraft capable of operating in that environment

  4. Peter Jerome 11 May, 2015 at 06:12 Reply

    US knew that Syria have access to Russia’s S3 advanced anti-aircraft. Intels provided that, that’s why F-22 is suitable for operations in Syria

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