The U.S., France and Great Britain's most advanced fighter jets are training together for the first time during an exercise out of Langley Air Force Base that is testing their ability to succeed in an environment they would face in a conflict against advanced nations like Russia or China.
The U.S. Air Force's stealthy F-22 has seen little combat action in part, officials have said, because it is so technologically advanced that its bells and whistles weren't needed in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, where nobody challenged coalition air superiority. But as the U.S. and its allies look ahead, they're planning for the days of being able to fly with near impunity the world over.
"Today, there are roughly 10 integrated air-defense systems in the world that you have a difficult time operating in or around in aircraft. By 10 years from now, there will probably be 25," Gen. Mark Welsh, U.S. Air Force chief of staff, said Tuesday. "You have to have the ability to dismantle those things. ... Until you can do that, you can't do land and maritime operations. In today's warfare, without air power you lose."
Officials said recent events demonstrate the importance of preparing for new threats.
Russia recently erected antiaircraft missiles in Syria, and Turkey recently shot down a Russian plane that crossed into its air space. Welsh stressed the importance of using the most-advanced aircraft available in contested environments.
"As the threat increases, if your capability against it does not become more and more technologically advanced, you will lose more lives as you're faced with that threat," he said.
The F-22 is flying alongside the French Air Force's Rafale and the Royal Air Force's Typhoon in a series of exercises that started earlier this month and ends Friday. Until the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is brought into service, each aircraft in the exercise is considered the most advanced in its nation's inventory.
Underscoring the rarity and importance of the exercise, Welsh was joined at Langley by his British and French counterparts as well as the commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Africa.
French Gen. Antoine Creux said it's critical to begin training together now in case a time comes where air superiority won't be a given for the partner nations.
"We need to be sure that we will be ready for day one, operating together very quickly, as soon as our political masters will ask," Creux said.
U.S. F-15E Strike Eagles and T-38 Talons are playing the roles of adversaries. The U.S. Airborne Warning and Control System also is taking part in the exercise, which involves about 225 American, 125 British and 150 French personnel.
"What's very clear in lessons learned in this exercise is that the technical capability that we bring to the fight will continue to drive success or failure," Welsh said. "Air forces that fall behind the technology curve will fail and we can't let that happen."
The next exercise with the aircraft likely will take place in Great Britain or France.