Watch: An Iraqi fighter plane, a drone and a stealthy F/A-18 jet track a SEAL down

A Lethal new weapon levels the playing field against the U.S. military Copyright by KHN – All rights reserved Video

WASHINGTON — When dozens of Navy SEALs and counterterrorism officers and officials were preparing for an October 2017 attack on the Somali port of Baraawe, the troops found themselves surrounded in an area roughly the size of Manhattan. At one point, they set up a portable perimeter of sandbags with little sign of an attempt to target or defeat them.

They couldn’t see if the U.S. soldiers backed them up, but clearly they were being seen and made an effort to escape.

Shortly after, two U.S. Navy F/A-18 Super Hornets made a special mission to flank them — virtually invisible to them.

The third aircraft flew directly over them. At the last moment, the two pilots adjusted their control surfaces and moved directly toward their target. The radar of the fighter jet revealed that they were the SEALs, who jumped right out of the jet and down into the mission.

All the while, the SEALs maintained their distance. The jet is a speed trap, and it tracked the rapidity and space of the SEALs’ movement, which allowed them to gain an almost unimpeded upper-body advantage over their U.S. adversary.

Capt. Randy Omalera, the commander of Strike Fighter Squadron 135, the crews of which are at Edwards Air Force Base in California, acknowledged that his stealthy strike jet and its ability to avoid detection weren’t the only reasons that SEAL Team 6 should have been able to get out of Baraawe. “Well that certainly worked out the way we planned it to, but you never know what the objective is in a certain combat environment,” he said.

The jets, which are capable of speeds up to about 530 miles per hour, tend to avoid flying close to people and easily evade detection. They’ve been used in training exercises to simulate combat, and the aircraft holds 15 bombs that can be released in a maximum of 13 seconds.

But as military leaders recognized last year, the Navy’s F/A-18s won’t be the only planes capable of flying on the edge of detection in future war zones.

Iran’s fighter jets are both made by AeroVironment, an Arizona-based aerospace company. The company makes small, cheap unmanned aerial vehicles that are being delivered to Iran’s military. The Iranian military would presumably add radars to those planes to make them more difficult to detect.

In November 2016, the Iranian F-4Ts’ onboard guidance systems guided the four-seater planes to within a mile of a cluster of houses in Iran’s south-eastern city of Ahvaz. The battle left eight Iranian Revolutionary Guard soldiers dead. The incident prompted concern among U.S. officials because it was the first time they believed the Iranian military had used guidance systems on a US aircraft.

Iran’s aircraft are also less advanced than the F/A-18s, the F-15s and the F-16s that helped crush al-Qaida and the Taliban. The models the U.S. air force uses tend to have systems capable of detecting vehicles that are 5-10 feet long. The Iranian models vary in size, and in some cases could not detect vehicles that were that much smaller.

Recently, AeroVironment announced that its quadcopter — an aircraft designed for aerial photography and cargo drop — will be replacing small, light F-16 Fighting Falcons, made by Lockheed Martin, for a number of countries. The company also announced that it would begin providing special mission training for Iran. Last year, the U.S. military had about 40 F-16 jets in Iraq and Syria and 11 in the Philippines.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali)

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