The U.S. Air Force is determined to put the F-22 Raptor fighter jet’s troubled past permanently in the rearview mirror.
Roughly a decade after it was deemed combat ready and about a year after it made its operational debut by conducting strikes against ISIS targets in Syria, Air Force leaders on Monday announced they will deploy the F-22 to Europe.
Details of the upcoming deployment, including where the jets will be based and how many are going, will not be disclosed because of “operational security concerns,” but the F-22 will make its European coming out “very soon,” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told reporters during a Defense Department press briefing.
The deployment is part of the Pentagon’s European Reassurance Initiative, an agency effort to calm allies who are jittery about Russian aggression in the region and assist with training friendly nations in air-to-air combat scenarios.
The announcement was meant in part for Moscow’s ears, with James citing Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s comments that the U.S. strategy toward 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.”
Unveiled in 1997, procurement of the F-22 began in fiscal year 1999. The program was quickly besieged by design and cost overruns. The inflated price tag forced DOD to scale back its original plans to buy more than 400 aircraft; in 2009, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates capped production at 187.
The aircraft cost an average of $190 million per unit and the total program cost exceeds $67 billion.
The F-22 fleet was grounded for several months in 2011 after pilots complained about dizziness and oxygen deprivation in the cockpit, which may have contributed to the death of a pilot that same year.
Over the last 11 months the Raptor has flown combat missions against Islamic State militants, putting more than 200 sorties under its belt. That could help the service makes it case as it seeks billions of dollars over the next several years to update the fighter jet’s complex systems.
Despite the jet’s use in the Middle East and now Europe, the program’s critics aren’t about to call a truce.
The announcement that the Raptor is going to Europe “definitely smacks of a PR stunt,” according to Dan Grazier, a fellow with the Center for Defense Information at the Project on Government Oversight.
He said the Air Force is “definitely interested” in saying it is “making good use” of the fighter jet given its turbulent past.
Grazier did concede the deployment is useful in that it will give pilots a chance to actually fly the F-22 and hone their skills against other platforms like the Eurofighter Typhoon.
On Monday, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh stressed the training aspect of the upcoming deployment to reporters.
“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,” he 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.”