F-22 Airstrike Destroys Taliban Drug Factory

Defense News.

An F-22 Just Blew Up a Drug Lab During Its First Combat Mission in Afghanistan

The F-22 Raptor, possibly the most advanced fighter plane in the world, just bombed a drug lab in Afghanistan. The incident marked the first time that the F-22 has dropped bombs in anger. But a larger question overshadows the airstrike: Is it really necessary to use a plane that costs nearly $70,000 per hour to bomb an undefended drug factory?

The bombing was part of Operation Jagged Edge, a campaign to attack Taliban drug production. Heroin is one of the main moneymakers for the Taliban, who use it to fund their guerrilla war against the Afghan government and its American backers. Most of this heroin is funneled to Europe and Canada, with only a small amount reaching the United States. According to U.S. Forces Afghanistan Gen. John Nicholson, there are between 400 and 500 drug production sites in country at any one time.

Here’s video from the bombing:




The military has wanted to go after these facilities for some time, but the rules of engagement say air power can only be used only to defend Afghan troops. These rules were recently expanded to allow U.S. forces greater latitude in target planning, hence Jagged Knife. According to Defense News, the operation destroyed 10 drug facilities in one night.

The use of a F-22 Raptor to bomb a drug site was reportedly driven by several factors. One, the targets were in an area with civilians nearby, and that required a precision weapon with a small explosive payload. The Small Diameter Bomb, a 250-lb. precision-guided bomb that can fly more than 45 miles to strike targets, was the obvious and perhaps only choice for the task. Here’s video of the SDB loaded on a F-22.

The problem with the Small Diameter Bomb is that only two aircraft, the F-22 and F-15 Strike Eagle, are cleared to use it. In time the Air Force will fit the SDB to all of its tactical aircraft, but for now it’s just these two, and USAF says the F-15E wasn’t available at the time.

If you follow the Air Force, all of this more or less makes sense. But stepping back a bit, one has to wonder: Given that the Air Force has been in Afghanistan for 16 years fighting an enemy without advanced air defenses and fighter cover, why doesn’t it have a smaller, cheaper fighter that can deliver the bombs? Wasn’t there a better way to do this?

The F-22 Raptor costs $68,362 an hour to fly. A trip from the United Arab Emirates where the F-22 was based to Helmand Province where the bombing happened is at least a four-hour round trip. Add in the cost of tanker support and the total cost to bomb undefended two buildings could have approached $400,000, weapons cost not included. At that rate, bombing 500 drug labs would cost the United States $200 million. While nobody is talking about making the F-22 America’s #1 drug fighter, that number is illustrative of what kind of costs we’re talking about when we fly advanced jets and how they can quickly spiral out of control.

Embraer/Sierra Nevada A-29 Super Tucano releasing a laser-guided bomb during the U.S. Air Force’s OA-X competition.
Embraer/Sierra Nevada A-29 Super Tucano releasing a laser-guided bomb during the U.S. Air Force’s OA-X competition.

Is there a smarter way to deal with these drug labs? Among the aircraft taking part in Jagged Knife were Afghan Air Force A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft. Prop-driven and capable of carrying precision bomb loads, the A-29 is perfect for low-end conflicts like Afghanistan. It costs just $1,000 an hour to fly, or about one and a half percent the cost of the F-22. The U.S. Air Force has nothing even remotely like them…for now.

A new combat aircraft evaluation program will change that. Observation Attack Experimentalprogram, or OA-X, is currently evaluating four light attack jets and will likely buy 300 of them for Air Force, boosting its ability to fight low-intensity wars. The A-29 is just one of the candidates for the OA-X program, and it will carry the Small Diameter Bomb.

The Air Force is caught in an existential dilemma. Air power is one of America’s most powerful and credible conventional deterrents, made convincing by the large number of highly advanced fighters and bombers in the arsenal. Aircraft such as the A-29 aren’t frightening to countries such as Russia or North Korea, but they are needed in places like Syria and Afghanistan.

Without an inexhaustible budget and the inability to see the future, the Air Force has chosen to maintain a force of high-end aircraft and accept they will be used in low-end fights. The result: occasionally questionable uses of airpower, such as bombing drug factories with F-22 Raptors. However, like many of the armed services, it is dawning on the USAF that America’s run of small wars likely isn’t ending anytime soon, and it would be wise to have a cheaper, more sustainable solution in the service’s quiver.

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