With little fanfare, roughly 20% of the USAF's F-22 Raptor fleet has deployed to the Far East in recent weeks.
The rotations began in mid-January, when 12 Raptors flew from Langley AFB, Virginia, to Kadena AB on Okinawa. A week later, 12 more F-22s from Elmendorf AFB, Alaska deployed to Guam. Collectively, these movements represent the largest Raptor deployment to the Pacific region.
During their three months in the Pacific, both units will train with Air Force and other U.S. military assets. So far, the deployments have gone smoothly--a sharp contrast to the first F-22 deployment to the region in 2007. During that rotation, a software glitch caused navigation and communications problems as the jets crossed the International Dateline. After a return to Hawaii (and a software fix), the deployment went ahead as planned.
As David Fulghum of Aviation Week observes, the latest rotation is not without its risks. While operating in the Far East, the F-22s will be subject to intel collection by Chinese and Russian assets. SIGINT-capable TU-95 Bears have flown near Guam during the past year, and China has a significant, covert collection capability on merchant vessels that pass near Okinawa.
North Korea represents a third collection threat. A USAF intelligence officer tells In From the Cold that "a significant number" of North Korean nationals live in apartment buildings just off the end of Kadena's runway. Part of the large, ethnic Korean population in Japan, the Kadena contingent is believed to include intelligence operatives who monitor U.S. military activities on Okinawa. The Raptor deployment will provide another significant target for Kim Jong-il's spies.
While the F-22 rotations are a symbol of U.S. power and deterrence in the Pacific, they also underscore the limits of the current Raptor inventory and basing scheme. With production of the stealth fighter expected to end at 183 aircraft, the USAF will not have enough F-22s for permanent squadrons at Kadena or Andersen AB, Guam, two of the most important military installations in the Far East.
Instead, F-22 units based in Alaska, Hawaii and the CONUS will continue their deployments to those bases. While the aircraft can easily handle the assignment--and the rotations provide excellent training for pilots and ground personnel--the deployments come at a price. Sending a squadron half-way around the world for three months isn't cheap, and frequent rotations erode unit morale.
Despite such drawbacks, these deployments represent the only viable option for maintaining an F-22 presence in a vitally important region. The stand-up of two Raptor squadrons at Holloman AFB, New Mexico (part of the 49th Fighter Wing) will help, as will the conversion of the Hawaii ANG from F-15s to F-22s. But the New Mexico squadrons are still working toward their initial operational capability (IOC), and the Hawaii guard squadron won't begin receiving their Raptors until next year.
Until then, airmen from Langley and Elmendorf can look forward to more time in the Pacific.
ADDENDUM: Aviation Week also reminds us that cruise missile defense is a key mission for F-22s in the Far East. Both Kadena and Guam are within range of cruise missiles launched from Chinese or Russian bombers. With the AIM-120D and active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, the Raptors are well-suited for defeating that threat.
Incidentally, the current Raptor deployments were planned months in advance, and are not related to any recen military events in the region. However, the rotations do coincide with the latter stages of North Korea's annual Winter Training Cycle, and offer the "side" benefit of sending a message to Pyongyang.