On December 15th representatives of the American, British and French air forces met at an American air base to work on reviving and sharing Cold War era knowledge of sending aircraft into heavily defended air space. The presence of modern Russian anti-aircraft weapons in Syria and the hostile (and getting worse) relations between Russia and NATO member Turkey makes it useful to review SEAD (suppression of enemy air defenses) capabilities. Going after air defense systems, otherwise known as SEAD (rather than the World War II phrase "flak suppression"), is an expensive task and a high priority one during the Cold War. Shutting down air defenses is only undertaken if the target being defended is important enough to warrant such an expensive application of air power. After the Cold War ended the growing number of precision missiles seemed to be a more efficient way to go after heavily defended targets. This spurred development of air defense systems that can hit missiles. The US Patriot SAMs ability to intercept SCUD missiles was the first combat example of this technique. While crude, the Patriot showed that it could be done in 1990. Since then the Russian S-300 system (similar to Patriot) has acquired anti-missile capabilities. That said, nearly all the NATO aircraft losses in combat since the 1990s were from low tech weapons like machineguns and small SAMs.
The last time the United States had to do any serious SEAD was in 2003 during the invasion of Iraq. This was against second rate Russian Cold War era systems sold to foreign customers. But now the Russians have their most modern stuff in Syria and there is a possibility NATO aircraft may have to deal with it. So the December meeting was a first step in figuring out how to handle a SEAD challenge not seen since the 1980s.
Flying into heavily defended enemy air space is a risky business. High and low altitude antiaircraft defenses are numerous. Radars are all over the place. One approach is to sneak in with small (one to four) groups of planes. Coming in low, a few hundred meters high or low enough to singe the tree tops, the enemy has little time to react before you are past him. Zipping along at 200 meters a second, there is not much for the enemy to see, or shoot at. Using electronic mapping and navigation devices, the target is found (most of the time), the munitions released and an equally rapid exit made. Few aircraft are capable of this approach and the most modern detection and weapons systems (like what Russia has in Syria) are designed to handle it. The Russians also claim they can detect American stealth aircraft. There is another solution; stealth. Designing aircraft for maximum resistance to detection to produce stealth capability was pioneered by the U.S. in the 1970s from a Russian concept that the Russians could not turn into a workable aircraft. Such an airplane had a reasonable chance of penetrating enemy defenses to hit targets with a high degree of surprise. This is important, as the damage done goes down with the amount of warning the target has. Five minutes of warning can reduce air base damage 40 to 80 percent depending on how many concrete aircraft shelters the base has. Stealth (the F-117) worked for the U.S. in the 1990 and 2003 campaigns in Iraq but in case the Russians can detect and hit stealth aircraft you must be prepared to send in larger groups of aircraft, led by lavishly equipped electronics warfare planes, to ensure successful SEAD and destruction of the target. Since this process tends to destroy a lot of enemy ground defenses along the way that makes it easier for subsequent raids.
The “package” of fighters and support aircraft using SEAD to reach a target is led by aircraft Wild Weasels. These have radar detection and jamming equipment which can either hide the group from enemy radar or prevent the enemy from making accurate use of their ground-to-air missiles. You will need fighters to deal with enemy interceptors. Thus the battle can range from 10,000 meters up down to ground level. The Wild Weasels carry missiles that home in on enemy ground radars. The most dangerous opposition comes from enemy guns, which often can fire without radar in clear weather. For this reason, raids at night and in bad weather are often preferred. If all goes according to plan, the Weasels will protect the electronically less sophisticated strike aircraft to the targets, where they release their loads. Everyone then fights their way home past a thoroughly alerted enemy. The stealth aircraft are well suited to perform the Wild Weasel role and have done so. This has become a common mission as there are still a lot of non-stealth strike aircraft and a need to suppress anti-aircraft defenses. For targets where surprise is not critical, stealth led raids are the norm. This was the case in the 1990 and 2003 Gulf Wars.
Russia was striving, with some success until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, to catch up with Western strike aircraft in overall sophistication and effectiveness. None of their new generation of strike planes, which have now been seen under combat conditions, were effective but not to the extent Russia hoped. Russia has its own AWACS and Wild Weasel aircraft, but both are somewhat tame compared to Western models. Russian pilots, by and large, are not as expert, experienced or audacious as their Western counterparts. Israel, however, produces a very capable AWACS, mainly for export, that is superior to anything the Russians have.
If the Russians in Syria do become a target NATO allies have to know if the U.S. is ready to try using its latest stealth aircraft (F-22 and F-35) and how that would work in cooperation with other NATO warplanes, especially the most modern ones like Typhoon and Rafale. It is unclear how much has been decided about all this, but then details regarding SEAD and stealth capabilities and plans tend to be kept secret.