December 15, 2005

F-22 joins US fleet as top fighter

By Jim Wolf

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The futuristic F-22A "Raptor"
fighter jet, designed to dominate the skies well into the 21st
century, joined the U.S. combat fleet on Thursday, 20 years
after it was conceived to fight Soviet MiGs over Europe.

The Air Force said "initial operational capability" had
been achieved by 16 of the aircraft at the 1st Fighter Wing's
27th Fighter Squadron at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia.

Pilots in the squadron, the Air Force's oldest in
continuous operation, have been training on the F-22, the Air
Force's most advanced weapon system, for about a year.

"If we go to war tomorrow, the Raptor will go with us,"
Gen. Ronald Keys, head of the Air Force's Air Combat command,
said in a statement. He said it was ready for use in combat
worldwide or for homeland defense.

The aircraft's role is to "kick the doors down" in a
conflict, as Pentagon officials put it, knocking out defenses
on the ground and in the air to clear the way for other
warplanes and forces.

The radar-evading Raptor is twice as reliable and three
times more effective than the F-15C Eagle it is replacing as
the top U.S. air-to-air fighter, according to Lockheed Martin
Corp., its developer.

Lockheed described the fighter as the world's most advanced
and said it was "relevant for the next 40 years."

Boeing Co. and Northrop Grumman Corp. are top F-22
subcontractors. United Technologies Corp.'s Pratt & Whitney
unit makes the aircraft's two engines.


The Raptor combines low-observability, or stealth, with
supersonic speed, agility and cockpit displays designed to
boost greatly pilots' awareness of the situation around them.

At a "fly-away" cost of about $130 million each for the
most recent batch, not including research and development, it
is also one of the most controversial U.S. warplanes ever.

Critics have termed it unaffordable overkill in a world
without the potential threat of a Soviet Union able to send
swarms of MiGs into a dogfight, which prompted its inception in

The Air Force is planning to stretch F-22 production until
2010 to keep Lockheed's production line open pending arrival of
its more affordable F-35 Joint Strike Fighter family of
aircraft that will also go to the Navy, the Marines and
co-developing nations that include Britain, Italy and Turkey.

The F-22 also has a ground attack capability to drop
250-pound (113.5-kg), small-diameter bombs or 1,000-pound
(454-kg) Joint Direct Attack Munitions while flying at
supersonic speeds.

Gen. Michael Moseley, the Air Force chief of staff, has
said the F-22 is needed against threats such as Russian-built
surface-to-air missiles sold overseas.

Moseley said on Tuesday he hoped to buy 183 F-22s, four
more than currently in the budget and enough for seven
combat-ready squadrons, down from the 750 F-22s once planned.

Others have cast it as the weapon of choice for any future
U.S. conflict with China, for instance over Taiwan.

"There is a clear role for F-22 here," said Daniel Goure, a
former Pentagon strategist now at the Lexington Institute, an
Arlington, Virginia, research group with close ties to the U.S.
defense establishment.

As of last month, 53 F-22s had been delivered to the Air
Force. Eventually, a squadron is expected to be based on the
Pacific island of Guam, a U.S. territory within striking
distance of China.