HILL AIR FORCE BASE — As workers at Hill Air Force Base continue to churn out modified F-22 Raptors, the Air Force is discovering a new role for the multipurpose fighter as it flies combat operations in Syria and Iraq.
In the nearly 10 months the Raptor has been flying combat missions against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, the stealthy jet’s contribution has been more of an escort role, using its high-tech sensors and communications to guide and protect other fighters that are actually dropping the bombs.
As of July 9, F-22 fighters have flown just 204 sorties, launched airstrikes in about 60 locations, and dropped 270 bombs. Since combat operations in the region began last August, the U.S. and coalition aircraft have flown nearly 44,000 sorties and have conducted airstrikes in close to 7,900 locations.
But Air Force leaders say those numbers don’t tell the entire story.
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said the Iraq and Syria deployments have provided real-time insights into how well the F-22 can sweep up information about enemies beyond the horizon and spread that intelligence to the fighters moving in to strike targets on the ground.
“The F-22s make other U.S. aircraft more survivable. It really is enabling all the rest of the team,” James said. “Perhaps this is a good model to think about for the future.”
Officials say the counterinsurgency fight in Iraq and Syria isn’t the main type of combat the F-22 was built for, with the fifth-generation fighter designed to excel in sophisticated air-to-air combat situations. Its advanced engines allow it to fly at faster-than-sound speeds without using afterburners that consume more fuel.
“Flying it where we are now, I would not say is a very dense or a very high-threat environment,” said Maj. Gen. J.D. Harris Jr., vice commander of Air Combat Command. In Iraq and Syria he said, “Its primary role is to make sure that it dominates the sky, so it keeps other air forces down on the ground, keeps them away from our airplanes that are not as good in the air-to-air role.”
He said the flights in Iraq and Syria have reinforced what the aircraft can do as a commander and coordinator on the battlefield — capabilities that will become increasingly important as more countries beef up their air defenses. Syria itself has fairly sophisticated air defenses, and the F-22’s work helps reduce the risk of other fighters being shot down.
Maj. Cameron, a pilot who deployed to Iraq earlier this year to fly the F-22, is with the Virginia Air National Guard’s 192nd Fighter Wing. He flew one combat mission in Iraq, doing a six-hour sortie escorting and guiding other fighters. His last name is being withheld at the request of the Air Force, in order to protect the identity of pilots who fly missions against IS.
His job, he said, was to help the F-16s and other fighter jets do their strikes.
“Their mission is getting the bombs on target, on time, finding the right target and minimizing collateral damage,” said Cameron. “The more time they have to focus on that part of the mission, the more successful we’re going to be in the long run. So, the F-22 … it’s another eye in the sky, if you will, to help them focus on the mission.”
While the F-22 continues to work on its war fighter chops, Hill plays an important role in the jet’s combat future.
Hill’s Ogden Air Logistics Complex performs depot maintenance work for the Air Force’s entire fleet of F-22s. The ALC can perform various types of maintenance on up to 13 Raptors at one time. The work is split between two main maintenance jobs: structural repairs and low-observable, or stealth, coatings.
According to an Inside the Air Force newsletter, of the 13 F-22 work stations at Hill, four are set aside for a “low-observable coating repair process,” which repairs the chemical state of the coating on F-22 aircraft engine intakes to keep the jet’s stealth properties functioning.
Conceived decades ago, the F-22 program has had a bumpy history, from massive cost overruns and design troubles to safety concerns in 2011 when the jets were grounded for four months after pilots complained of dizziness and lack of oxygen. The Air Force later blamed a faulty valve in the pilots’ pressure vests. The part was replaced and air flow to pilots was increased.
The aircraft cost an average of $190 million each, and the total program has exceeded $67 billion. The Air Force initially sought to buy more than 400 F-22s, but that plan was sharply cut back in 2009 by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates and production was capped at 187.
Never flown during the initial Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the fighter made its combat debut last September during the second wave of airstrikes over Syria, when the battle against IS in Iraq was expanded.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.