WASHINGTON — Weeks after top Pentagon officials began openly calling Russia the greatest threat to the United States, the Air Force is preparing to deploy the F-22 Raptor to Europe for the first time.
The deployment comes under the aegis of the European Reassurance Initiative, a Pentagon effort to soothe concerns among European allies in the face of increased Russian aggression.
Deborah Lee James, the Air Force secretary, told reporters Monday that a deployment of F-22s is heading to Europe for training exercises "very soon." Details of the rotation, such as where it will be based and the size of the Raptor fleet deploying, were not shared due to what James called operational security reasons.
James made clear that F-22's "inaugural" visit to Europe was designed to send a message to Russia, citing a comment by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter that the US approach to Russia "needs to be strong, and it needs to be balanced."
"Rotational forces and training exercises help us maintain our strong and balanced approach, and we will certainly be continuing those in the future," she said. "For the Air Force, an F-22 deployment is certainly on the strong side of the coin."
Although it went operational in 2005, the F-22 saw its first combat operations last fall when it was used in the opening night of anti-ISIS operations in Syria. Since then, it has become a regular part of strike packages into Syria.
The Raptor is designed primarily as an air-to-air fighter. Depending on load out, 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 fact it is the most advanced air-to-air system in the Air Force's inventory made it a good choice for this deployment, said Gen. Mark Welsh, Air Force chief of staff. He noted that the US will also greatly benefit from the chance to train with regional allies.
"We'll get the F-22 into facilities that we would potentially use in a conflict in Europe," he added. "This is a natural evolution of our bringing our best air-to-air capability in to train with partners."
Welsh then specifically called out the Eurofighter Typhoon as an example of a plane that the F-22 would benefit from training alongside.
"We have an aircraft with pretty advanced capabilities, and we need, and they would like, for us to be able to interoperate in multiple type scenarios," Welsh said. "And being able to train side by side with them and do that kind of training is really, really important for us. And that's what this is for."
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.