Where all the F-22 Raptors are based and why

From a lofty original ambition of fielding 750 F-22s, regular USAF budget reductions saw a total force of fewer than 200. In a recent Key Publishing special magazine on the F-22 Raptor, Jon Lake looks at where and why they are based.

The US Air Force originally envisaged a production run of 750 F-22s, which would have allowed replacement of the F-15C on a virtually one-for-one basis. This number was reduced to 648 in 1991, though it was then still intended that the air force would station 40% of the operational fleet outside the United States. The US DoD’s 1993 Bottom-Up Review further reduced the planned number of production F-22s to 438 (plus four pre-production versions, later reduced to two).

The total of 440 F-22s was judged to be sufficient to equip four F-22 fighter wings in a total USAF force structure of 20 wings which would comprise 13 active wings and seven Reserve/National Guard organisations.

The 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) again reduced the planned number of production F-22s to 339 aircraft, which was sufficient to support three F-22 fighter wings in a slightly changed 20-wing force structure (12 active; 8 Reserve/National Guard).

The requirement was reframed further as the US Air Force reorganised its air power into ten air and space expeditionary force (AEF) packages, each of which would require a 24-aircraft F-22 squadron. With test and training aircraft and a modest attrition reserve, this led to an official USAF requirement for a PMA (Primary Mission Authorised) figure of 240 – which equated to 381 aircraft.

Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey ‘Cobra’ Harrigian, then the commander of the 43rd Fighter Squadron delivered Raptor 01-018, the first of 48 new F/A-22 Raptor's assigned to the 325th FW to Tyndall AFB on September 26, 2003, enabling the 43rd FS to begin training Raptor pilots. Later the commander of US Air Forces Central Command, Harrigian flew his final F-22 flight, at Al Dhafra Air Base, on August 8, 2018 and retired as General Harrigian, commander of United States Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa, in June 2022.
Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey ‘Cobra’ Harrigian, then the commander of the 43rd Fighter Squadron delivered Raptor 01-018, the first of 48 new F/A-22 Raptor's assigned to the 325th FW to Tyndall AFB on September 26, 2003, enabling the 43rd FS to begin training Raptor pilots. Later the commander of US Air Forces Central Command, Harrigian flew his final F-22 flight, at Al Dhafra Air Base, on August 8, 2018 and retired as General Harrigian, commander of United States Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa, in June 2022. (US Air Force, Technical Sergeant Michael Ammons)

Meanwhile, the air force sought to work out where to bed down the initial three-squadron F-22 operational wing. The USAF wanted to use an existing Air Combat Command (ACC) base, with Langley AFB, Virginia as its preferred option, but with four alternative locations under consideration. These were Eglin AFB, Florida; Elmendorf AFB, Alaska; Mountain Home AFB, Idaho; and Tyndall AFB, Florida. At Eglin, Elmendorf, additional since the F-22s were to replace operational F-15Cs, while at Tyndall AFB, a new, separate wing would be formed that would be additional, since there were no operational F-15C aircraft to drawdown. Nellis AFB was also considered.

Further reductions eventually brought the total down to 187 production aircraft. This figure was arrived at when, in late 2004, Presidential Budget Directive 753 removed production funding for the F-22 after FY 2008, effectively ending production at 183 F-22s. Just four extra aircraft were authorised above this total.

The first US Air Force F/A-22 Raptor (PRTV II aircraft 00-4012) was delivered to the 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada on January 14, 2003. Raptor 12 - the 12th F/A-22 built - was initially used to teach operational test pilots and maintenance personnel how to fly and repair the aircraft safely and effectively. AWFC pilots then used the aircraft and seven more F/A-22s assigned to the unit, to develop the tactics, techniques, and procedures for the entire combat air forces.
The first US Air Force F/A-22 Raptor (PRTV II aircraft 00-4012) was delivered to the 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada on January 14, 2003. Raptor 12 - the 12th F/A-22 built - was initially used to teach operational test pilots and maintenance personnel how to fly and repair the aircraft safely and effectively. AWFC pilots then used the aircraft and seven more F/A-22s assigned to the unit, to develop the tactics, techniques, and procedures for the entire combat air forces. (US Air Force, Staff Sergeant Colette M. Horton)

Low Numbers

This meant a PMA availability of aircraft of only about 120 – half of that originally required, and insufficient to support all ten air and space expeditionary force packages, or indeed all of the bases that had been considered as locations for the first F-22 wing.

Eglin AFB was selected as the location for F-35 Joint Strike Fighter pilot training of all US Air Force, Navy, and Marine personnel as part of the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Act (BRAC) which meant that it did not meet the requirements for hosting an F-22 operational wing. Similarly, and as a result of the same act, Mountain Home AFB became the primary location for F-15E aircraft assets. These additional missions meant that Mountain Home also did not meet the requirements for hosting an F-22A operational wing.

Nellis AFB continued to have unique FDE requirements for one squadron of F-22As and two proposed squadrons of F-35s to support testing, training, and weapons system evaluation, which also ruled it out as a location for an operational F-22 wing. And it was decided that training would be centred at Tyndall, leaving Elmendorf as the obvious host for the second operational wing.

The reduction in F-22 orders from a high of 750 aircraft to fewer than 200 forced an immediate reassessment of plans for their deployment, with much smaller wings. It was initially decided that there would be four such wings, at Langley in Virginia, Holloman in New Mexico, Tyndall in Florida, and Elmendorf in Alaska, with small numbers of aircraft in Hawaii and test/development aircraft at Nellis in Nevada and Edwards in California.

F/A-22 flight testing with the 411th FLTS began in 1997 with Raptor 4001, the first EMD F-22, and eight more EMD jets assigned to the 411th FLTS would participate in the test programme. Here, four of the squadron’s F/A-22 Raptors fly over the Mojave Desert during a landmark test mission. A record number of seven Raptors were airborne simultaneously during several test missions on August 29, 2003.
F/A-22 flight testing with the 411th FLTS began in 1997 with Raptor 4001, the first EMD F-22, and eight more EMD jets assigned to the 411th FLTS would participate in the test programme. Here, four of the squadron’s F/A-22 Raptors fly over the Mojave Desert during a landmark test mission. A record number of seven Raptors were airborne simultaneously during several test missions on August 29, 2003. (US Air Force, Kevin Robertson)

In 2006, the air force decided to organise its F-22s into seven operational squadrons, each with 18 primary mission aircraft. The primary wings at Langley, Elmendorf, and Holloman would each have two frontline squadrons (plus an associate unit with no aircraft of its own), while Tyndall was to have the FTU and a single squadron. With the test community and the inexplicable outpost in Hawaii, this meant that squadrons would be limited to fewer than 20 aircraft each – many of which would inevitably be undergoing maintenance or repair at any one time. Even under the most optimistic plans, F-22 squadrons were authorised to have only 18 to 21 Primary Aircraft Assigned (PAA) compared to 24 PAA for legacy fighter squadrons.

The F-22 force was clearly going to be very thinly spread, and it was not long before there was a major rethink.

By 2010, the air force was acknowledging that its basing plan was unsustainable because its operational squadrons were not able to conduct adequate sorties. So, on June 29, 2010, the Department of the Air Force announced plans to consolidate the F-22 fleet, acknowledging a need for fewer bases, each with larger numbers of aircraft. There did not seem to have been any serious consideration given to cancelling the stand-up of the units in Hawaii, though the relatively small number of aircraft would seem to have been better deployed to one of the bigger CONUS-based wings.

The air force decided to eliminate one squadron and to use some of the aircraft from that squadron to increase the number of primary mission aircraft to 21 in its five remaining active duty squadrons. They also left the single F-22 National Guard squadron with 18 primary mission aircraft.

At the time, Kathleen Ferguson, deputy assistant secretary for installations explained that: "This plan maximises combat aircraft and squadrons available for contingencies. By consolidating aircraft at existing bases, F-22 operational flexibility is enhanced."

Brigadier General Larry New, commander of the 325th Fighter Wing at Tyndall Air Force Base, leads a formation of four F-15C Eagle fighters from the 1st, 2nd, and 95th Fighter Squadrons and the 325th Operations Group, together with a single F/A-22 Raptor from the 43rd FS.
Brigadier General Larry New, commander of the 325th Fighter Wing at Tyndall Air Force Base, leads a formation of four F-15C Eagle fighters from the 1st, 2nd, and 95th Fighter Squadrons and the 325th Operations Group, together with a single F/A-22 Raptor from the 43rd FS. (US Air Force, Master Sergeant Michael Ammons)

Officially, consolidation saw the F-22 force go from six squadrons with 18-21 aircraft each to five squadrons with 24 aircraft. Teams surveyed four F-22 bases, evaluating them according to the feasibility, timing, cost, and planning required for them to accept additional F-22 aircraft. It was said that the secretary of the air force and the chief of staff of the air force carefully considered the site survey results (including appropriate environmental analysis) and military judgment factors before making their basing determinations. It was determined that the most effective basing for the F-22 required redistributing aircraft from one F-22 squadron at Holloman to units at the remaining four F-22 bases, and to relocate the second squadron at Holloman to Tyndall AFB.

At Holloman, the 8th Fighter Squadron was deactivated, and its aircraft were dispersed with six going to Langley, six to Elmendorf, and two to Nellis. The remaining squadron – the 7th Fighter Squadron - was relocated to Tyndall, re-numbering as the 95th Fighter Squadron.

Thus, by 2015, the force consisted of 157 Primary Aircraft Authorised (PAA) – 48 at Langley (two 24-aircraft squadrons), 36 at Elmendorf (two 18-aircraft squadrons), 20 with the single squadron at Hickam, and 53 at Tyndall – 24 each with the 43rd and 95th Fighter Squadrons, and five with the 301st. Langley, Elmendorf and Hickam’s associate units had no aircraft assigned.

By May 2018, the two Langley squadrons each had 23 aircraft, while Elmendorf’s had 24 (90th FS) and 23 (525th FS). There were still 20 aircraft in Hawaii, while Tyndall had 55 (31 with the 43rd FS and 24 with the 95th FS). Finally, four aircraft were allotted to the 412th Test Wing at Edwards, and 14 to the 53rd Wing at Nellis.

But the F-22 fleet was considerably smaller than these figures might suggest, suffering poor availability rates that consistently lagged behind the USAF’s required ‘availability standard’. It had been alleged that the force would struggle to support combatant commander needs.

 

Above and below: Major Charles ‘Corky’ Corcoran, a 27th Fighter Squadron Fighter Pilot, takes off in a F/A-22 from Langley Air Force Base, Virginia on January 28, 2005. This was the first F/A-22 sortie from Langley flown by a Langley-based pilot, though the newly delivered aircraft still wore Tyndall’s TY tail codes.
Above and below: Major Charles ‘Corky’ Corcoran, a 27th Fighter Squadron Fighter Pilot, takes off in a F/A-22 from Langley Air Force Base, Virginia on January 28, 2005. This was the first F/A-22 sortie from Langley flown by a Langley-based pilot, though the newly delivered aircraft still wore Tyndall’s TY tail codes. (US Air Force, Staff Sergeant V. Levi Collins)
(US Air Force, Staff Sergeant V. Levi Collins)

Aircraft Availability Standard

The USAF Aircraft Availability standard is based on the air force’s evaluation of requirements, including operational and training requirements, and is not resource constrained. In 2012-2016, for example, the Aircraft Availability standard for the F-22 was 66.7% for fiscal year 2012, was set at 72.6% in fiscal year 2015, and was 72% in fiscal years 2016 and 2017. During that period, the actual F-22 fleet availability rate was four to 19% lower than the air force’s annual F-22 availability standard. In Fiscal Year 2016 the average number of F-22s available for operations was just 80, from a total inventory of 186 aircraft. F-22 availability has generally lagged behind that of the USAF’s fourth generation fighters by 10-20%, thanks in part to the increasing maintenance demands of the aircraft’s ageing Low Observable coatings. In FY 2021, availability rates for the USAF’s 4th generation fighters ranged from 66.24% for the F-15E to 71.53% for the F-16C, while the F-35A showed 68.8% (according to Lockheed Martin data in the latter case) and the A-10 72.54%. The F-22 had an availability rate of just 50.81%.

F-22 Raptors from the 90th Fighter Squadron at Elmendorf Air Base, Alaska, and the 49th Fighter Wing at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, fly to the Nevada Test and Training Range on February 4, 2010. The aircraft were participating in exercise Red Flag, a realistic combat training exercise involving the air forces of the United States and its allies.
F-22 Raptors from the 90th Fighter Squadron at Elmendorf Air Base, Alaska, and the 49th Fighter Wing at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, fly to the Nevada Test and Training Range on February 4, 2010. The aircraft were participating in exercise Red Flag, a realistic combat training exercise involving the air forces of the United States and its allies. (US Air Force, Staff Sergeant Taylor Worley)

It is widely recognised that the USAF’s fourth generation fighters are themselves currently underperforming in terms of availability due to an intense modification schedule, heavy maintenance requirements, and a lack of aircraft due to deployments.

The small size of the F-22 fleet, combined with low availability, has significantly reduced the type’s combat effectiveness. This has been further exacerbated by poor organisation and management of the fleet, which, according to the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), has not maximised the availability of these 186 aircraft. This is a particular problem, as only five of the air force’s 55 combat coded fighter squadrons are equipped with the F-22, and yet the type is acknowledged to be the only USAF fighter capable of achieving air superiority against the most advanced air and surface threats in the most contested environments.

Many would like to see steps being taken to improve F-22 availability, and to focus the force’s activity where it is most needed. According to the GAO, this is not the case today.

In a 2018 report to congressional committees, the GAO charged that: “F-22 organisation and utilisation changes could improve aircraft availability and pilot training.”

US Air Force chief of staff General John P. Jumper exits an F/A-22 Raptor following his final qualification flight. The general underwent a two-week qualification training programme in the Raptor so that he could speak to lawmakers with a little more authority on the programme's importance. Jumper remains the only chief of staff to have checked out on the USAF’s most capable fighter.
US Air Force chief of staff General John P. Jumper exits an F/A-22 Raptor following his final qualification flight. The general underwent a two-week qualification training programme in the Raptor so that he could speak to lawmakers with a little more authority on the programme's importance. Jumper remains the only chief of staff to have checked out on the USAF’s most capable fighter. (US Air Force, Lisa Norman)

The GAO said that the air force’s organisation of its small F-22 fleet had not maximised the availability of these 186 aircraft, which was constrained by both maintenance challenges and unit organisation. Maintenance of the F-22’s low observable coatings has always been challenging, soaking up more resources than was ever expected. The F-22’s LO coating is actually a series of coatings that require diligent and time-consuming application and curing, resulting in extended periods of time in maintenance. The F-22’s LO coating has an eight to 10 year life span, but this can be reduced by as much as three years by environmental factors including high temperatures, humidity, and salinity. The air force has taken action to address this by using a more durable coating and by standing up additional LO repair facilities, but still does not house its F-22s in climate-controlled hangars at three of the four operational locations (Alaskan F-22s do use such hangars), and they are thus exposed to these LO degrading environmental factors. As the F-22’s LO coating nears the end of its service life, it requires complete replacement.

F-22 availability has also been constrained by supply chain issues. The F-22 fleet’s small size means that there is a relatively low demand for parts, and relatively low inventory levels. Obtaining missing parts can be time-consuming and costly due to DMS (diminishing manufacturing sources) problems, with some original equipment manufacturers no longer making parts and others being out of business altogether. When this is the case, the air force has to locate the original design plans, and then find and commission a new contractor to produce what may be a small number of parts, sometimes requiring a lengthy redesign and requalification process. Because of this, even a simple wiring harness can require a 30-week lead time. There is also a shortfall of spare engines.

Lieutenant Colonel James Hecker, the 27th Fighter Squadron commander, delivered the first operational F/A-22 Raptor to its permanent home at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, on May 12, 2005, escorted by a pair of F-15Ds – one of them carrying photographer Ben Bloker!
Lieutenant Colonel James Hecker, the 27th Fighter Squadron commander, delivered the first operational F/A-22 Raptor to its permanent home at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, on May 12, 2005, escorted by a pair of F-15Ds – one of them carrying photographer Ben Bloker! (US Air Force, Technical Sergeant Ben Bloker)

Small Units

These maintenance challenges have been exacerbated by the USAF’s decision to organise the F-22 fleet into small units, often with just 18-21 primary mission aircraft per squadron and with one or two squadrons per wing. Traditional USAF fighter wings have three squadrons per wing with 24 aircraft in each squadron, which creates maintenance efficiencies because people, equipment, and parts can be shared.

F-22 aircraft availability has fluctuated but has generally been better for operational locations with more aircraft per squadron and with more squadrons per wing. Thus, both Langley and Elmendorf have enjoyed higher aircraft availability rates than the locations with only one operational squadron – Hickam and Tyndall – and were also generally able to generate more sorties per month.

A 411th Flight Test Squadron F-22 Raptor from Edwards AFB, California undertook a three-week deployment to Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska for cold-weather testing of its braking system, testing the Raptor’s ability to manoeuvre, stop and go on slippery surfaces. The aircraft was tested on incrementally low-level runway condition reading surfaces, with temperatures ranging between 37 degrees to minus 13 degress.
A 411th Flight Test Squadron F-22 Raptor from Edwards AFB, California undertook a three-week deployment to Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska for cold-weather testing of its braking system, testing the Raptor’s ability to manoeuvre, stop and go on slippery surfaces. The aircraft was tested on incrementally low-level runway condition reading surfaces, with temperatures ranging between 37 degrees to minus 13 degress. (US Air Force, Kevin Roberston)

Perhaps surprisingly, the frontline squadron at Tyndall seems to have been unable to leverage the maintenance benefits of also having the F-22 training squadron ‘on base’. This is in part because the F-22s at the training squadron were among the oldest F-22s in the fleet and were maintained at a different configuration than the operational aircraft. Historically, F-22s used for training had not been required to have fully maintained LO coatings but a change in that requirement resulted in a large maintenance backlog for these training aircraft as their coatings had to be restored, dramatically impacting availability at Tyndall.

Although there are many factors that influence F-22 maintenance and availability statistics including aircraft age and use, climate and unit leadership, there is no doubt that larger squadrons and wings have a significant effect on availability.

Representatives from the US Air Force and Lockheed Martin gathered to see the roll-out of Pacific Air Forces' first F-22 Raptor on February 12, 2007, at Marietta, Georgia. This F-22 was the first assigned to PACAF at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, with ‘AK’ tail codes and a Pacific Air Forces badge on the tailfin.
Representatives from the US Air Force and Lockheed Martin gathered to see the roll-out of Pacific Air Forces' first F-22 Raptor on February 12, 2007, at Marietta, Georgia. This F-22 was the first assigned to PACAF at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, with ‘AK’ tail codes and a Pacific Air Forces badge on the tailfin. (US Air Force, Angela Tyson)

It has been calculated that relatively small increases in aircraft can leverage significant improvements in availability. The Hawaii ANG have stated that increasing their squadron complement by just four additional aircraft would enable the squadron to generate 32% more sorties.

Ironically though, the air force has made a deliberate practice of deploying relatively small elements of its Raptor squadrons as Unit Type Codes (UTCs). An F-22 UTC will typically take six of a squadron’s 21 aircraft but will take 60% of its operational personnel, 50% of the squadron’s equipment, and approximately 40% of the squadron’smaintenance personnel, making it more difficult for the undeployed portion of the squadron to maintain readiness and generate sorties. Moreover, while these UTCs may have a disproportionate share of personnel and equipment they will often also be allocated a squadron’s best aircraft, its more experienced personnel, and critical parts.

Traditional fighter squadrons typically have larger UTCs, with a better balance in equipment and personnel between deployed and undeployed elements.

An F-22 Raptor from Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, lands at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, during exercise Resilient Typhoon, April 22, 2019. The exercise is designed to validate Pacific Air Forces ability to maintain readiness while adapting to rapidly evolving events. The ‘Hawaiian Raptors’ consist of airmen from the Hawaii Air National Guard’s 154th Wing and their active-duty counterparts from the 15th Wing.
An F-22 Raptor from Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, lands at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, during exercise Resilient Typhoon, April 22, 2019. The exercise is designed to validate Pacific Air Forces ability to maintain readiness while adapting to rapidly evolving events. The ‘Hawaiian Raptors’ consist of airmen from the Hawaii Air National Guard’s 154th Wing and their active-duty counterparts from the 15th Wing. (US Air National Guard, Senior Airman John Linzmeier)

Larger UTCs are better able to meet emerging DoD concepts for using distributed operations in high threat environments. In the past, the air force tended to deploy its squadrons to a single forward location – usually a major air base. In the face of a growing threat and faced by China’s A2AD (Anti-Access/Area Denial) capabilities, this started to look inflexible and limiting. If fighters can deploy only from one well-known base to another well-known base, then they will be predictable and vulnerable, no matter how technically advanced and operationally capable they might be in the air, and no matter how tactically skilled their crews might be.

Instead of operating from well-developed and vulnerable major air bases, it is now planned that squadrons or UTCs would break up into smaller units and operate independently from multiple locations, moving around in order to complicate enemy targeting.

To facilitate exactly these kind of operations, Air Force Pacific Command developed the Rapid Raptor concept which has since been expanded from a theatre-specific capability to a global one by Air Combat Command and is now being spread across the tactical aviation fleet as the Agile Combat Employment model.

Under the so-called Rapid Raptor concept, a package of four F-22 Raptors and supporting logistics, fuel, and munitions, with at least one C-17 Globemaster III aircraft, would quickly deploy to any forward operating base in the world (including non-traditional locations and austere bases), and would be refuelled, rearmed and combat-ready within 24 hours of deployment, all with a smaller footprint.

But while Rapid Raptor promises unprecedented flexibility in the deployment of fifth-generation fighter aircraft, there are real doubts as to whether the F-22 force has sufficient availability and maintainability to execute the strategy.

Carrying underwing fuel tanks, the 302nd Fighter Squadron’s ‘flagship’ intercepts a Russian Tupolev Tu-95MS Bear-H strategic bomber during a routine mission from Elmendorf on November 22, 2007.
Carrying underwing fuel tanks, the 302nd Fighter Squadron’s ‘flagship’ intercepts a Russian Tupolev Tu-95MS Bear-H strategic bomber during a routine mission from Elmendorf on November 22, 2007. (US Air Force)

Perhaps even more importantly, there are real concerns as to whether Raptor pilots are ready to undertake these kinds of operations. The GAO found that the air force’s utilisation of its F-22 fleet has limited its pilots’ opportunities to train for their high-end air superiority missions, and that it has contributed to F-22 pilots not meeting their training requirements.

The high-end air superiority role – seizing and maintaining air superiority (and ideally air dominance) in a high threat environment is extremely demanding, and as fourth generation fighters become progressively less survivable, more of the burden will fall on the small fleet of F-22s.

The Raptor’s role can be divided into three. The primary missions consist of Offensive Counter-Air (OCA) and Defensive Counter-Air (DCA). The OCA mission (once known as Escort/Sweep) entails defeating enemy fighters and escorting other fighters or bombers over hostile territory. Conversely, DCA is focused on defending friendly airspace against air threats, including enemy fighters, bombers, and cruise missiles. The F-22 also has the secondary mission of Air Interdiction/Offensive Counter-Air/Attack Operations, an air-to-ground mission to defeat and eliminate advanced surface-to-air missile threats and other ground targets that contribute to an enemy’s air power.

But F-22 pilots need extensive training in order to be prepared to execute their highly specialised and vital mission, and they are not getting enough of that training.

 

Adversary Air

A US Air Force analysis undertaken in 2016 concluded that, based on current aircraft availability rates, pilots in an F-22 squadron with 21 primary mission aircraft on strength would need 270 days of home station training each year to meet their minimum annual continuation training requirements, but found that they were actually only getting 191 days on average. This meant that they were not fully prepared to effectively support combatant commander needs against the most advanced threats. And these requirements are the minimum - some pilots may need additional sorties to achieve proficiency.

Why then, are squadrons failing to deliver this home station training?

Tyler Rogoway, on his excellent The Warzone website concluded that: “The USAF is wasting F-22s on patrols and deployments,” and that: “the jets and their pilots are too busy with missions that don’t require their unique capabilities to prepare for conflicts that do.”

Here two F-15 Eagles (an F-15E off the Raptor’s starboard wing and an F-15C to port) fly alongside an F-22A Raptor and an A-10 Thunderbolt II over Tucson, Arizona, on Sunday, March 5, 2006.
Here two F-15 Eagles (an F-15E off the Raptor’s starboard wing and an F-15C to port) fly alongside an F-22A Raptor and an A-10 Thunderbolt II over Tucson, Arizona, on Sunday, March 5, 2006. (US Air Force, Airman 1st Class Veronica Pierce)

The GAO found that F-22 units were too often directed to participate in relationship-building exercises with partners, which provided little training value to the F-22 pilots, who are often restricted from flying the aircraft the way they would in combat, due to security concerns and an unwillingness to expose the F-22’s unique capabilities. F-22 pilots could even develop ‘bad habits’ that then had to be corrected in future training.

Even when Raptor pilots are undertaking the required ‘home station training’ there are concerns that it may not be as effective or as useful as it should be. The US Air Force expects F-22 pilots to face and defeat numerically superior adversaries, and continuation training requires those pilots to fly against multiple aircraft playing the role of adversaries.

The USAF has assessed that there is an annual demand for between 145 and 171 adversary air sorties for every operational F-22 pilot – a much higher number than is required by fourth generation fighter pilots. Those flying the USAF’s other air superiority fighter are assessed as requiring just 45-73 adversary air sorties. To help meet the demand, the USAF has dedicated T-38 adversary squadrons at Langley and Tyndall, while Elmendorf’s F-22s use the services of an F-16-equipped adversary squadron at a nearby base. Insufficient adversary air caused pilots to have shortfalls in their training at all F-22 operational locations, and at Tyndall in 2016 it was reported that this had negatively impacted the training of 83% of the squadron’s pilots for the offensive counter-air mission and 54% of the pilots for the defensive counter-air mission.

Moreover, shortages of dedicated adversary aircraft often meant that F-22 pilots had to fly their aircraft as simulated adversaries to support the training of their squadron mates. Such sorties are assessed as being useful only for maintaining basic flying proficiency, and as having no value - or even negative training value for the pilots flying as adversaries! In 2017, it was estimated that 55% of the sorties generated by F-22s based in Hawaii were dedicated to adversary air.

Colonel Jeff Harrigian, by now the 49th Fighter Wing commander, and Lieutenant Colonel Mike Hernandez, commander of the 7th Fighter Squadron, fly a pair of F-22A Raptors over White Sands National Monument, on their way to Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, on June 2, 2008. These aircraft were the first two Holloman-tailed F-22s to arrive on base, though Holloman’s time as an F-22 base was destined to be brief.
Colonel Jeff Harrigian, by now the 49th Fighter Wing commander, and Lieutenant Colonel Mike Hernandez, commander of the 7th Fighter Squadron, fly a pair of F-22A Raptors over White Sands National Monument, on their way to Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, on June 2, 2008. These aircraft were the first two Holloman-tailed F-22s to arrive on base, though Holloman’s time as an F-22 base was destined to be brief. (US Air Force, Senior Airman Russell Scalf)

Even more of a problem is the diversion of F-22s to support current combatant commander needs, even where these needs contribute nothing to F-22 training requirements and could be better met by other tactical aircraft platforms. Sometimes, F-22 deployments seem to be motivated more by a desire to ‘spread the load’ and to ensure that difficult and unpopular deployments are ‘shared around’, rather than on the basis of sensible and considered matching of resources to tasks.

Thus, the F-22 force has been deployed to a number of combatant commands to address a variety of needs, including providing assurance to friends and allies and deterring potential adversaries, but always having the consequence of reducing the time available for F-22 pilots to conduct home station training for their high-end air superiority missions.

Since 2007, the Air Force has deployed F-22s to the US Central Command area of responsibility (AOR) to support ongoing operations against the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria. This has provided pilots with experience of deploying for combat, of integrating with coalition forces, and of conducting air-to-ground attack operations, but at the cost of letting F-22 pilot air superiority skills degrade while on deployment. Moreover, the air-to-ground attack operations carried out have tended to be close air support (CAS), which is not a primary or secondary mission for the F-22. But battling ISIS does not require the F-22’s unique capabilities, nor does it help to prepare F-22 pilots for their primary (or secondary) missions.

An F-22A takes off at Holloman Air Force Base, on October 22, 2008, for training missions in the local area. This was the first time that Holloman had launched a pair of F-22s.
An F-22A takes off at Holloman Air Force Base, on October 22, 2008, for training missions in the local area. This was the first time that Holloman had launched a pair of F-22s. (US Air Force, Technical Sergeant Chris Flahive)

Another responsibility that takes time away from vital air superiority training is the air sovereignty alert mission. Though homeland defence is naturally a top priority for the DoD, it does not require the F-22, and other types would be better suited to it, while it does further reduce opportunities and time for F-22 pilots to train for the high-end air superiority mission. In other parts of the United States, F-15C and F-16 squadrons routinely fill alert mission requirements, and many believe they should replace the F-22 alert commitment, too.

The air sovereignty alert mission requires a participating air base to maintain a number of  fully fuelled, fully armed aircraft (with their pilots) sitting alert in order to fulfil a 24-hour per day alert commitment. Squadrons must dedicate a number of mission-capable aircraft to this mission, and while on alert, neither pilots nor aircraft can train for their primary and secondary missions. F-22s are maintained on alert full time at Hickam and Elmendorf, while Langley is assigned alert missions on an as-needed basis.

The alert mission does not require the high-end capabilities provided by the F-22 and though these missions are important, they could easily be performed by other fighter types.

 A further consolidation of the F-22 fleet is currently underway in 2023, as the wing formerly based at Tyndall winds down, redistributing aircraft from the disbanded 95th Fighter Squadron, and from the AFRC 301st Fighter Squadron to Langley and Elmendorf, and moving the FTU (formerly the 43rd Fighter Squadron) to Langley (where it was renumbered as the 71st Fighter Squadron).

If the USAF does succeed in divesting 32 early-model F-22s, it is hard to see the existing force structure surviving unscathed, and there may be further squadron disbandments.

F-22 Squadrons

7th FS, 49th Wing, 2008-2014

8th FS, 49th Wing, 2009-2011

19th FS, 15th Wing, ANG, 2010-date

27th FS, 1st Fighter Wing, 2003-date

43rd FS (FTU), 325th Fighter Wing, 2002-2022

59th TES, 53rd TEG, 2004-date

71st FS (FTU), 1st Fighter Wing, 1/2023-date

90th FS, 3rd Fighter Wing, 8/2007-date

94th FS, 1st Fighter Wing, 6/2006-date

95th FS, 325th Fighter Wing, 2013-2019

149th FS, AFRC, 1st Fighter Wing, ANG, 10/2007-date

199th FS, 15th Wing, 2010-date

301st FS, 325th Fighter Wing, AFRC, 2010-2023

302nd FS, 3rd Fighter Wing, AFRC, 10/2007-date

411th FLTS, 412th Test Wing, 1998-date

422nd TES, 53rd TEG, 2004-date

433rd WS, 57th Wing, 2004-date

525th FS, 3rd Fighter Wing, 10/2007-date

6511th TS, 6510th Test Wing, 1989-91 (YF-22)

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