WASHINGTON – Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-22 fighter jet, making its debut in warfare more than nine years after it was deemed combat-ready, has flown at least 112 missions against Islamic State positions in Syria and Iraq, the U.S. Air Force’s commander of combat forces said.
The stealth fighter known as the Raptor has guided airstrikes into Syria, disseminated large volumes of data to fellow fliers and attacked Islamic State’s oil facilities, Gen. Herb “Hawk” Carlisle said in a telephone interview.
“If at all possible, they try to have F-22s on as many missions as they can because” the jets play the role of an aerial quarterback, Carlisle said.
“The F-22 can suck up information from everybody,” such as other fighters, air and ground surveillance aircraft, and then direct aircrews where to fly and locate targets, he said.
What the F-22 is doing “extraordinarily well is making sure other airplanes are aware of what’s around them and, in cases where they need to, direct them so they stay out of any potential threat,” Carlisle said of the plane’s first wartime role since it was initially declared combat-ready in December 2005.
The Air Force is touting the F-22’s role as vindication for a plane long criticized for its cost and the service’s failure to use it. The Pentagon has spent $67 billion to buy 187 of the supersonic jets, and on the Senate floor in 2011, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona famously called it an “expensive, corroding hangar queen.”
The F-22’s production was curtailed in April 2009 at 187 planes instead of a potential 243 by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who questioned its expense and relevance.
Its reputation was further marred during a yearlong mystery in 2012 over why at least a dozen pilots became dizzy and disoriented, a condition called hypoxia. The issue was traced to a faulty valve in the pilots’ vest oxygen system that’s been remedied.
The jet’s performance in Syria and Iraq may make it easier for the Air Force and Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed to get congressional support for an estimated $3.58 billion in software, sensor and weapons-carrying upgrades through 2020. Of that, the Pentagon is requesting $606 million for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1. Boeing Co. is a subcontractor.
On a per-plane basis, the F-22 is the costliest fighter aircraft ever, with a program acquisition cost, including research, estimated in 2010 at $358 million apiece. It drops GPS-guided direct-attack munitions and 250-pound Small Diameter Bombs, both made by Chicago-based Boeing.
One longtime F-22 critic said the Air Force needs to release more data on its performance, including the cost to operate it while deployed, before a judgment can be made as to its effectiveness.
“From Air Force data in 2013, we know the cost to operate an F-22 per hour in the U.S. is $68,262,” said Winslow Wheeler, a former Government Accountability Office analyst who assessed weapons programs and recently retired from the Project on Government Oversight, a Washington-based watchdog group. “Foreign deployments will be more.”
F-15 and F-16 aircraft flying missions in Iraq and Syria are “certainly doing it at an operating cost that is a fraction of the F-22’s according to official Air Force data,” Wheeler said.
He said the Air Force has a track record of releasing data on its favored weapons programs that are “usually incomplete, often to the point of being misleading.”
Carlisle called ridiculous any notion that using F-22s against Islamic State targets is overkill or unwarranted.
Until now, Pentagon and Air Force officials have declined to discuss the aircraft’s missions beyond disclosing its first foray into Syria against an Islamic State command facility when those strikes commenced in mid-September.
On one mission, mostly at night, two Raptors flew for 12 hours, including flights over Syria and Iraq and several aerial refuelings, Carlisle said. The jets dropped bombs, returned to strike targets again, directed coalition fighters and passed information in real time to the primary air operations center.
Through Feb. 2, F-22s flew 112 Syria and Iraq combat missions, or sorties. They’ve dropped 132 munitions, mostly on Islamic State-controlled buildings and oil refining and transportation infrastructure, according to Air Force data.
Altogether, U.S. aircraft conducted 1,919 airstrikes dropping 8,194 munitions through Jan. 30, according to the latest summary by U.S. Central Command.
The F-22s flying missions over Iraq and Syria are equipped with Increment 3.1 software and sensors that provide enhanced air-to-ground capability such as geolocation of selected ground electronics emitters and ground-mapping synthetic aperture radar made by Northrop Grumman Corp., according to the Pentagon’s test office.
So far, President Bashar al-Assad hasn’t operated Syria’s air defenses against U.S. airstrikes targeting Islamic State, a mutual enemy, but Carlisle said the Air Force recognizes the threat they pose.
“There are parts of Syria that are higher or lower threats” and “frankly, we never know for sure what” the Syrians potentially might do “with their fairly highly capable systems,” he said.
“We are very cognizant of Syrian air defenses” and also are still gathering information about the full extent of Islamic State air defenses, he said.
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