The Houthis’ (Ansar Allah) claim about shooting down an American F-22 Raptor has been called out as hyperbole, as the aircraft in question was never deployed for the strike mission.
Reports on X claimed that the F-22 was “shot down over Sanaa,” which was one of the six sites targeted by the United States and the UK. There has been no visual evidence of any downed US warplane.
The archaic Soviet-vintage air defense capabilities are seen as unable to take out the world’s first 5th-generation fighter jet. However, once, a Soviet-vintage Pechora missile flummoxed the US Air Force and brought down the USAF’s first stealth fighter jet.
March 27, 1999, was a rainy night, a Soviet-vintage Pechora did what has not been done so far – shoot down a stealth fighter. The US Air Force’s F-117 stealth fighter Nighthawk, the supersecret “Black Jet,” was on a night mission in Yugoslavia when the aircraft was shot down by the Serbian Pechora. The pilot had to eject behind the enemy lines.
“I took off from Aviano Air Base, Italy. I flew the F-117 to the target and dropped two 2,000-lb—laser-guided weapons on a very specific target in the Belgrade area. I came off the target 20 nautical miles northwest of Belgrade when it happened,” the F-117 pilot, whose name has been withheld, later recalled.
Neither the pilot nor the Air Force want to say more about how the Serbs shot down an F-117 except that the culprit was “an enemy missile system.” Two aircraft were shot down during the Kosovo campaign: The other was an F-16 Fighting Falcon.
The F-117 was shot down at 8:38 pm; by 1:00 am, Serbian television was showing footage of civilians dancing around the burning, crumpled wreckage of the stealth fighter, with its serial number (82-806) and other markings visible.
The F-117 was developed in the 1980s under a “black program” and was unveiled only in 1989 when 50 of these fighter jets were already flying.
The Serbian battery commander Colonel Dani Zoltan, whose missile downed the F-117 later, explained how he turned his Soviet-vintage SA-3′ Pechora’ missiles into a lethal weapon. He had search and control radars, as well as a TV tracking unit.
The SA-3 missiles that entered service in 1961 were not considered a major threat to NATO aircraft. NATO’s electronic countermeasures during their bombing missions have been demoralizing for the Serbian troops. But Zoltan tweaked his system to achieve the kills.
Besides bringing down the two fighter jets, Zoltan forced many bombers to abort their missions in the face of unexpectedly accurate missiles.
After studying the American countermeasures and their F-117 fighter jet, Zoltan realized that the biggest threat he faced came from the HARM (anti-radar missiles) and electronic detection systems deployed by the Americans. The Colonel ditched all cell phones and radio communication and relied on landlines and foot messengers for his communication.
His network of human intelligence would alert him when the enemy aircraft got airborne. The colonel tweaked his serac radar to get a lock on the stealth fighter jet. After that, he would switch on his tracking radar for a minimal amount of time, making it difficult for the Americans to take him out with their HARM missiles.
The SA-3 was guided from the ground, and Zoltan needed to take short-range shots at American bombers to get accurate shots and to stop them from using jamming and evasive maneuvers to make the missile miss. The F-117 he shot down was only 13 kilometers away. Zoltan overcame the stealth by using a modified long wavelength of his radar system.
In other words, the primitive long wavelength radars that the Serbs used are like “prodding for something in the dark using a long stick.” The Serbs extended their wavelengths to make the “stick” even longer, piercing through F-117’s “invisible cloak.”
The Americans later suggested that the downed F-117 did not have electronic attack support. According to most accounts, the night aircraft was shot down was the only one where EA-6B Prowlers were not present to take out enemy’s radars.
Nighthawks mostly flew combat missions with support from jamming aircraft, including EF-111 Ravens and EA-6B Prowlers. The F-117s lacked any defensive countermeasures of their own and relied on its stealthy shaping and radar-absorbent material to evade radars.
The F-117s did not have onboard threat-detection equipment, making F-117 pilots nearly oblivious to incoming missiles. They had another major weakness. Every time the pilot opened the wheel well or bomb bay doors, their low-observability rate decreased.
F-22 ‘Shooting Down’ Claims
The adage goes: aim for the moon, and you will land on stars. The Houthi rebels, wreaking havoc in the Red Sea, are taking it seriously. As the US and its allied forces are pounding the rebels, the Houthis’ belligerent ambition is losing touch with reality.
After their UAVs and anti-ship missiles have been swatted by the warships in the region, the Houthis have claimed they shot down a US Air Force Lockheed Martin-made air superiority fighter, F-22 Raptor, and one unnamed British fighter.
The credit was bestowed on the Soviet air-defense systems and anti-aircraft missiles provided to it by Iran. But the claim seems to be the Houthis’ way of manifesting a kill when there was none.
According to US officials, the bombing targeted more than 6 targets in 16 different locations across Houthi-controlled swaths in Yemen. The strikes against the Houthi rebels were carried out by the Tomahawk missiles launched from US Navy surface ships and the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Florida (SSGN-728).
The air operations were carried out by the UK’s Royal Air Force and involved four Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4s aircraft, supported by a Voyager air refueling tanker. The Typhoons dropped Paveway IV-guided bombs to conduct precision strikes on Houthi facilities.
The world’s first ever 5th generation fighter jet, the F-22, is still the touchstone for the US’s superior air power, and undoubtedly, the Houthis would want a kill under its belt. But bringing down the aircraft from over 80 kilometers when the American and British fighter jets are equipped with modern technologies like electronic countermeasures and remote launch systems is far from reality.
The Raptor has a cross-section that is even smaller than the F-35, making it difficult to spot. It is faster than the F-35 and can reach the speed of Mach 2.2 powered by its two engines. This has earned the American ‘Ironbird’ the moniker of being ‘invincible.’
It would have indeed been a formidable feat for the rebels, who have so far managed to harass unsuspecting commercial vessels. In nearly two decades of official operation, no F-22 Raptor stealth fighter has ever been shot down before, but there have been a few that have crashed due to accidents.
While the Houthis are probably not capable of taking out a leading fifth-generation fighter, the group is still well-equipped thanks to their most prominent supporter – Iran. Similar to the Gaza-based Hamas terror group and Lebanon-based Hezbollah terror organization, the Houthis receive training, funds, and other forms of aid from Tehran. Following the takeover of Yemen’s Sana’a capital back in 2014, Iran’s contributions to these Yemen-based “rebels” grew steadily to include the transfer of weapons.
The Houthis’ Missile Punch
When the Houthis took over Sana in Yemen in September 2014 and other parts of the country in March 2015, they seized most of the Yemeni government’s arsenal of Soviet-vintage Surface-to-air missiles and radars. The missiles included SA-2s, SA-3s, SA-6s, SA-9s, and man-portable air-defense systems.
These weapons were never considered a serious threat to aircraft, as many were obsolete and needed repair. The air-defense environment in Yemen has been largely benign. Reported losses in 2015 were minimal: one Moroccan F-16, one Bahraini F-16, two Saudi AH-64 Apache helicopters, and up to a dozen reconnaissance drones.
The 2016 tally was even smaller: except for one helicopter and one drone hit by an unspecified “special weapon,” there were no confirmed combat aircraft shot down by hostile fire that year, despite Houthi claims that they had destroyed an F-16, four helicopters, and sixteen drones.
The ability to shoot down an F-22 using these vintage systems is bleak and more bleak is the chance that the US would deploy an F-22 for the strike as an odd missile bringing down the Raptor would be bad press.
- Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
- She can be reached at ritu.sharma (at) mail.com
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