Where is the F-22?

The cover of the March 18 issue of the Weekly Standard featured a dramatic image of F-22 Raptor fighters flying “unto the breach” to highlight coverage of the war in Libya. It’s a great stock photo, but not actually a very apt one since that fighter has been conspicuous by its absence in the Libya operation. ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
555921_110401_0_WStandard.16-27.Mar28.Cover_2.jpg
555921_110401_0_WStandard.16-27.Mar28.Cover_2.jpg

The cover of the March 18 issue of the Weekly Standard featured a dramatic image of F-22 Raptor fighters flying "unto the breach" to highlight coverage of the war in Libya. It's a great stock photo, but not actually a very apt one since that fighter has been conspicuous by its absence in the Libya operation.

You can hardly blame the editors for assuming a major air operation of this type would involve the Air Force's flagship $411 million fighter. Air Force Chief of Staff Norman Schwartz denied this week that the fighter was being kept out of Libya because of its operational limitations:

“Had the F-22 been stationed in Europe, in proximity and therefore more available, it undoubtedly would have been used,” Schwartz told the Senate defense appropriations subcommittee today. Because the Libya operation “came together fairly rapidly, the judgment was made to apply the various resources we had in close proximity.”

The cover of the March 18 issue of the Weekly Standard featured a dramatic image of F-22 Raptor fighters flying “unto the breach” to highlight coverage of the war in Libya. It’s a great stock photo, but not actually a very apt one since that fighter has been conspicuous by its absence in the Libya operation.

You can hardly blame the editors for assuming a major air operation of this type would involve the Air Force’s flagship $411 million fighter. Air Force Chief of Staff Norman Schwartz denied this week that the fighter was being kept out of Libya because of its operational limitations:

“Had the F-22 been stationed in Europe, in proximity and therefore more available, it undoubtedly would have been used,” Schwartz told the Senate defense appropriations subcommittee today. Because the Libya operation “came together fairly rapidly, the judgment was made to apply the various resources we had in close proximity.”

F-22 jets, the most advanced and expensive fighters in the U.S. arsenal, are based in Virginia, New Mexico, California, Florida, Alaska and Hawaii, Air Force Major Chad Steffey, a spokesman, said in an e-mail. Trade newspapers and blogs have quoted private analysts, such as Loren Thompson of the Arlington, Virginia-based Lexington Institute, who have said that the F-22 likely was kept out of the fight because its data links don’t communicate with other warplanes and it has a limited ground-attack capability.

“The fact the F-22 did not perform in this particular mission” wasn’t a negative reflection on its usefulness, Schwartz said. “It was an expedient judgment, putting the plan together and executing on a very rapid timeline.”

Though Air Force Secretary Michael Donley didn’t deny the fact that this sort of operation isn’t exactly what the F-22 — optimized for air-to-air engagements — was built for:

“The air-to-ground capability is somewhat limited” compared with that of the F-15E fighter-bombers used over Libya, he said. The F-15E, unlike the F-22, has a capability to drop laser-guided bombs on moving ground targets. The F-22 carries two Global Positioning System satellite-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions for fixed targets.

Unlike the F-15E, the F-22 has a radar-evading stealth design. “Had they been required, we would have used them,” Schwartz said in an interview after the hearing.

The fact that it was a no-show in Libya, following its non-use in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the war-on-terror generally, is sure to raise more questions about what exactly we need the pricey dog-fighting machines for. I suppose it’s a bit difficult for Schwartz and Donley to tell Congress, you’re going to be glad we have these if we’re at war with China

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

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