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The Raptor conundrum

Still no combat sorties for the Air Force's F-22 Raptor, but in the realm of drills and exercises, the super-jet remains the king of the skies. Next month the 27th Fighter Squadron, based at Langley AFB, Va., will be the first Raptor unit in the Air Force to accept the Raytheon Trophy, which honors an "outstanding air superiority squadron." According to today's announcement, the airmen of the 27th won won in part because of how well they demonstrated their Raptors could deploy and integrate with all kinds of other American and international units last year:

During fiscal year 2010, the 27 FS, known as the "Fightin' Eagles," deployed more than 200 days in support of combatant commanders from the East China Sea to Southwest Asia. Pilots, maintainers and support personnel pioneered the first-ever F-22 presence in the Middle East through participation in Iron Falcon -- a multinational training exercise hosted at the United Arab Emirates Air Warfare Center ...

[Later, in the Western Pacific], the 27 FS executed the first-ever large-scale, intra-theater movement and regeneration of F-22s, validating the combat deployment and regeneration capability of the Raptor. Superior operations, logistics and maintenance planning enabled the F-22s to fight their way in, land and regenerate a combat alert status posture. The capstone event ... was Exercise Valiant Shield, a 10-day joint plan validation involving 11 combat units, a carrier strike group and more than 150 joint service fighter aircraft.

Did you copy all that? (Follow the link for the official Air Force story with many more details.) Last year, the Air Force sent an F-22 squadron overseas for 200 days. By its own standards, the airmen and their jets performed brilliantly -- to an award-winning level. And yet when the Air Force was preparing for the first days of operations against Libya, the super-jet apparently never made it into the air plan for attacks or patrols to enforce the no-fly zone. In fact, it almost seems as though the F-22 was the only American warplane not given a chance to play in Libya: Marine Harriers, Air Force B-2s and B-1s all have gotten into the act, in addition to all the local assets from Europe and elsewhere.

And yet when the Air Force's top officials were asked to explain why the Raptor hadn't been used in Libya, they told congressional lawmakers it was because the Raptors' home bases in the U.S. put them out of range of the targets or patrol boxes in Libya. So, next month, the first Raptor squadron is getting a prize for doing something that the brass said it couldn't do: Deploy long distances from home and operate in a hostile expeditionary environment. Hey, not fair, the Air Force would say -- obviously the F-22 can do it, just not in the short time available before the start of operations in Libya.

Maybe so, but here's the bottom line: The 27th Fighter Squadron's trophy shows that when it wants to, the Air Force can move and use the F-22 to its complete satisfaction. So far, though, it has preferred not do to so for real. Why? Here's one theory I pitched in my previous gig:

A cynic might take this view of the situation: The F-22 production line is still going, approaching the completion of its final jet in November. If DOD actually used the Raptor to do something for real, it could awaken a desire for Lockheed and its lawmakers to try the kind of strategy that has worked for Boeing’s Super Hornets: “Hey, the factory’s almost closed, but we can get such a good deal per plane, we’d be fools not to buy 40 or 50 more!” (Repeat every year for as long as possible.) This would a harder sell with the much more expensive Raptor, but missions over Libya could reawaken a more-Raptors specter that Gates and the White House want to stay dead.
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