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Why Is the Air Force Using Stealth Fighters to Blow Up Crude Drug Labs?

"The reality is we are fighting two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the F-22 has not performed a single mission in either theater."

David Axe

F-22 performs first drop of small diameter bomb, September 2007. Image: USAF

The 16-year-old war between the Taliban and the US-led coalition in Afghanistan is evolving into a "criminal/narco insurgency," in the words of the coalition's top commander.

Vast fields of opium poppies under Taliban control fuel a profitable drug-production operation that dumps as much as $60 billion worth of heroin on American streets, according to the US government.

But US Army General John Nicholson, head of US forces in the war-torn country, has a new weapon for taking out the Taliban's estimated 500 opium-processing labs: the F-22 stealth fighter, newly upgraded with small bombs that the Air Force claims are more precise than other munitions are.

On November 19 and 20, US and Afghan forces coordinated air and artillery strikes on Taliban narcotics facilities in Helmand province, in Afghanistan's arid south. "We're hitting the Taliban where it hurts, which is their finance," Nicholson told reporters.

The air raids included Afghan A-29 attack planes, US Air Force B-52 heavy bombers and, for the first time in Afghanistan, Air Force F-22s flying from a secretive base in the United Arab Emirates.

The radar-evading F-22s, which entered service in 2005, had so far sat out the Afghanistan war. F-22s routinely patrol along the edges of Chinese, Russian, and North Korean air space and, in 2014, led the initial wave of US and allied warplanes striking Islamic State targets in Syria.

The F-22s stealth technology, while useful for evading detection by Russian, Chinese, North Korean, and Syrian air defenses, is all but useless against the Taliban, which possesses no radars or surface-to-air missiles.

Screengrab of November 19 strike. Image: USAF

In 2008, then-defense secretary Robert Gates cited that fact while justifying his decision to prematurely end production of the nearly $400-million-a-copy F-22 after the Air Force had acquired just 195 of the planes—hundreds fewer than the flying branch wanted.

"The reality is we are fighting two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the F-22 has not performed a single mission in either theater," Gates said, adding—in an oblique reference to Russia and China—that the stealth fighter "is principally for use against a near-peer."

But the twin-engine, Lockheed Martin-built F-22 has evolved. Today the plane possesses unique capabilities that the coalition claims make it ideal for hitting small targets in densely-populated urban environments.

Beginning a few years ago, the Air Force began upgrading some F-22s with new "Increment 3.1" software that makes the planes compatible with the new Small Diameter Bomb, a GPS-guided munition that, at 250 pounds, is smaller and, in theory, less destructive than most Air Force bombs are.

"The 500- to 2,000-pound bombs normally used by the Air Force are less practical against a military target located in a city because they may damage homes and cause civilian casualties," the Air Force explained in a statement.

Video of the November 19 and 20 raids indicate that the targeted Taliban drug labs were surrounded by other buildings. The coalition said it chose to send in F-22s with Small Diameter Bombs "principally because of their ability to mitigate civilian casualties and inadvertent damage."

The coalition did not release casualty estimates from the raids.

Overall, civilian casualties are rising in Afghanistan as the coalition steps up air strikes under looser rules of engagement that the Trump administration approved over the summer. According to the United Nations, 1,662 Afghan civilians died between January and the end of June 2017, two percent more than in the same period in 2016.

Still, the coalition promised more raids, potentially involving additional sorties by F-22s. Last week’s strikes "are just the beginning."

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