Lack of IRST puts US Raptor at a disadvantage compared to the Su-35

Many military connoisseurs and former air combat experts often believe that the U.S.-built F-22 Raptor outperforms the F-35 Lightning II in various aspects. Currently, the Raptor is unrivaled against any other fighter jet in existence. While the Su-35 might not be as formidable as the F-22 Raptor, it contains an ace up its sleeve that could potentially “oust” the F-22 from contention. 

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Despite the nearly unbeatable prowess of the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, there are still questions. Why is it lacking key features such as infrared search and Tracking [IRST] and cheek-mounted radars? According to National Interest, the need for fiscal constraint by the U.S. Air Force pegged at $9 million per aircraft in 1989, may have contributed to this omission. 

During that period, an initial design incorporated a staggering $16 million worth of avionics per aircraft. However, the U.S. Air Force did not specifically indicate which systems to eliminate to meet the budget constraints. This crucial decision was largely delegated to the manufacturers. As a result, it was Lockheed Martin’s choice to forego certain features, including the IRST and side-looking cheek-mounted radars.

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IRST is the advantage of the Su-35

At the heart of the fourth-generation Su-35’s strength lies its infrared search and track fire control system. This setup includes a camera, target designator, laser rangefinder, and an infrared sensor. 

Upon comparison, the fifth-generation F-22 and the fourth-generation Su-35 appear to be equal in terms of capabilities. However, the Su-35 has an edge owing to its superior aerial combat skills, its significantly lower price tag, and its innovative IRST technology. These components collectively give the Russian jet a clear advantage over its American counterpart.

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What do the experts say?

A study led by defense specialist Alex Lockie points out that Su-35s might indeed have more advantages than US Raptors in direct combat or during interception missions. If a dogfight were to unravel during an intercept operation, it is believed that Russian jets could have a significant upper hand by spotting the so-called ‘invisible’ F-22 Raptor. 

Expressing his professional opinion, Lt. Col. David Berke, who has the rare experience of flying both the F-22 and the F-35, suggested that if he were piloting the F-22, he wouldn’t choose to engage in a turning fight with an adversary. Instead, Berke would leverage the F-22’s primary strength – its stealth capabilities – to avoid any within-visual-range air battles. 

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Drawing upon his knowledge of combat airpower, expert Justin Bronk stated that aircraft models like the F-22, characterized by their stealth design and internal weapons storage, may not be the ‘go-to’ options for intercept missions. Bronk voiced that other cost-efficient jets can effectively fulfill this role.

The passive sensor system

Infra-Red Search and Tracking [IRST] is a system utilized in fighter jets for detecting and monitoring objects that emit infrared radiation, such as other aircraft or missiles. 

This technology operates as a passive sensor system, meaning it refrains from emitting any signals. Instead, it detects the infrared radiation emitted by other objects. It proves particularly advantageous in situations where radar might fall short, such as stealth operations or environments riddled with high electronic noise. 

The workings of an IRST system involve a series of steps. Firstly, the system scans its environment for sources of infrared radiation. This process is typically conducted using a rotating mirror that reflects the incoming radiation onto an infrared detector. This detector then converts the infrared radiation into an electrical signal, which a computer processes to form an image. 

Thereafter, the system analyzes this image to identify potential targets based on their distinct heat signatures. This operative process can be conducted multiple times per second, empowering the system to track moving targets with precision. 

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IRST advantages

An aircraft equipped with an IRST system boasts several advantages. Firstly, because this system is passive, it does not give away the aircraft’s location like radar does, making it ideal for stealth operations. 

Secondly, IRST systems can detect targets at long ranges, even under conditions where radar may prove ineffective, such as in heavy rain or through smoke. Thirdly, IRST systems can detect stealth aircraft, specifically designed to be undetectable by radar. 

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Lastly, since IRST systems use heat signatures to identify targets, they are less likely to be fooled by decoys or other countermeasures that could potentially trick radar systems.

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