April 23, 1991: Lockheed Martin awarded F-22 contract. Sept. 7, 1997: First flight. Dec. 15, 2005: F-22 reaches Iinitial operating capability. Jan. 21, 2006: Aircraft participates in Operation Noble Eagle, its first operational mission. Dec. 13 2011: Final F-22 production models rolls off the line. May 13, 2013: F-22s appear on satellite imagery of al-Dhafra Air Force Base in the UAE, an estimated six minutes from Iran. Sept.17, 2013: Speaking at the annual Air Force Association convention, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh gives an account of an F-22 intercepting an Iranian F-4. Current inventory: 187
The F-22 Raptor has flown its first combat operation, a major milestone for the small air dominance fleet.
An Air Force official confirmed that the Raptor was used over Syria Monday during nighttime operations against the Islamic State (IS) and other militant groups as part of a joint force of US and Arabian Gulf region allies.
“A mix of US aircraft and aircraft from within the US Central Command area of operations conducted the strikes,” the Air Force official said in a statement. “We will not specify the exact numbers of US aircraft or the specific munitions they employed. However, the US aircraft participating in the operation included remotely piloted aircraft, F-15E, F-16, F/A-18 and F-22 fighters and B-1 bombers.
“Additionally, the 47 [Tomahawk missiles] employed by the US in the strikes were launched from USS Arleigh Burke and USS Philippine Sea operating in international waters from the Red Sea and North Arabian Gulf,” the official added. “We are still assessing the outcome of the attack, but have initial indications that the strikes were successful in destroying their intended targets.”
The F-22 fleet has been held back in recent combat operations, in part due to the small size of its fleet. While the Pentagon originally planned on a major buy of the Lockheed Martin-built jets, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates pushed to end the plane’s production in the early days of the Obama administration.
The final production model rolled off the floor in December 2011, leaving the service with an inventory of just 187 jets.
Speaking at a Pentagon press briefing, Army Lt. Gen. William Mayville, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs, confirmed the F-22 was used to strike an IS command-and-control facility on the ground in Raqqah using precision-guided munitions.
Depending on loadout, the jet can carry six AIM-120 advanced, medium-range, air-to-air missiles or two AIM-120s and two GBU-32 joint direct-attack munitions for air-to-ground strikes. It also carries an internal 20mm gun and two AIM-9 Sidewinders in internal weapons bays.
The Raptor will likely get another chance at flying in combat, as Mayville warned the strikes are just “the beginning of a sustained campaign.”
US President Barack Obama echoed that sentiment during a brief speech from the White House lawn Tuesday morning, indicating actions will continue over the coming days and, potentially, weeks.
“The overall effort will take time,” Obama warned.
Details on US Air Force operations against IS have been slim, largely due to the fact that the planes operate from allied bases with sensitivities about being home to airstrikes against Muslims. In contrast, the US Navy, which operates its jets from the sovereign territory of aircraft carriers, has released many different videos of their jets in action over Iraq. It has also released footage of Tomahawk strikes from warships.
That sensitivity also clouds where the F-22 jets may have taken off from. In 2013, publicly accessible mapping data showed a squad of F-22s based at al-Dhafra air base in the United Arab Emirates, which was widely seen as a threat pointed at Iran. Later that year, the Air Force confirmed an F-22 had intercepted an Iranian F-4 in the region.
It also remains unclear why the Pentagon chose to involve the jet in its first combat action. Mayville cast the decission to use the Raptor as driven by “the effects we wanted to see on the target areas and what platforms in the region would be best suited to do that.”
“We had a large menu of targets to strike form and then we chose from there,” Mayville said. “So really it’s less the platform than the effects we seek, and then what platform can deliver those effects.”
What were those effects?
One possibility is that the F-22 was needed to protect US and allied planes, including Jordanian F-16s, from any air adversaries — specifically the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In theory, Assad’s forces could have seen a large aviation force moving in and moved to intercept.
A second theory posits that the F-22 was needed to go in and take out the remains of Assad’s air defense system in IS-controlled territory. The Syrian defense system has been cast by Pentagon leadership as highly advanced, and was cited as a reason US forces could not launch raids on the Assad regime in the early days of the Syrian civil war.
It is also possible the F-22 had an electronic warfare mission to perform ahead of the main fleet of fighters and bombers, again perhaps tied to the remnants of the air defense system.
One DoD official highlighted the F-22’s capabilities as an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platform, noting the “unique capabilities” the jet can bring to the fight.
“It has integrated avionics and a whole suite of sensors that are able to collect information so it becomes an ISR platform on top of being a kinetic platform,” the official said. “Those two things combined allow it to have a better understanding of the battle space, while at the same time being able to provide information to other aircraft it is operating with. That helps create a clear picture of what’s going on.”
“The F-22 has good battle combat ISR abilities, with radars and sensors that can gather more information about what exactly is going on in the battlespace,” said Rebecca Grant, president of IRIS Research and a former Pentagon official.
She highlighted the synthetic aperture radar, capable of collecting highly detailed images and video of targets on the ground, as a particularly interesting tool for this kind of air campaign. That radar could gather data, confirm a target, and pass that info back to other strike platforms trailing behind.
However impressive the F-22’s capabilities, the official downplayed this being the first combat operation for the Raptor, noting it was “just one” of the assets in the area deployed to Syria.
A simpler answer also on the table: the Pentagon is taking the bubble wrap off the F-22. The jet is stationed in strategic areas around the world for a reason, and while the service has held back on using them, that thought process may have changed.
The Air Force undoubtedly is happy to have the chance to learn from using the F-22 in actual combat operations. But the jet has been used around the world in non-combat operations, and the service has begun laying the groundwork for an eventual Raptor replacement, with a target date of 2018 for the start of an acquisition program.
“We’re at that point that we need to be thinking about replacement for capabilities we have today, because 15-20 years from now the F-22 will be 30 years old,” Col. Tom Coglitore, air superiority core function team chief at Air Combat Command, told Defense News. “These platforms are sometimes pulling 8 or 9 Gs a couple times a day. We stress the heck out of them.” ■