The United States Air Force is sending more than two dozen F-22 stealth fighters to an exercise in the western Pacific this month, an unusually large deployment of the powerful jets that analysts say sends a strong message to a possible adversary in China.
Pacific Air Forces in Hawaii this week said approximately 25 F-22s Raptors from the Hawaii Air National Guard and from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, will deploy this month to Guam and Tinian islands for Operation Pacific Iron 2021. “We have never had this many Raptors deployed together in the Pacific Air Forces area of operations,” Gen. Ken Wilsbach, Pacific Air Forces commander, told CNN. The F-22s are fifth-generation combat jets, the world’s most advanced fighter aircraft, incorporating stealth technologies and connecting on-board sensor systems with off-board information systems to give their pilots a detailed view of the battle space. US F-35s are another example.
Deploying a large number of F-22s for the exercise sends an immediate message to China at a time when relations are tense over Pacific flashpoints like Taiwan and the South China Sea, said Carl Schuster, a Hawaii-based defense analyst and a former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center. Normal F-22 deployments consist of six to 12 aircraft, he said. “The Pacific Air Force is demonstrating that it can deploy as many or more fifth-generation aircraft into the theater on short notice than (China) currently has in its entire inventory,” he said.
The Chinese air force has about 20 to 24 operational fifth-generation fighters, Schuster said, but he noted Beijing’s capabilities are improving at a rapid pace. The US Air Force has around 180 F-22s in its fleet, although only about half are mission capable at any one time due to maintenance requirements, according to Air Force statistics. So the US will be sending about 25% of mission F-22s to the Pacific Iron exercise. Because of their ability to evade radar detection, F-22s would be expected to be among the first weapons used in any conflict, tasked with taking out an adversary’s air defenses among other missions.