Dark Wings

$70 Billion Stealth Jet Finally Flies in Its First War

For years, the Air Force kept its most important jets—the F-22 Raptor stealth fighters—away from combat zones. That changed Monday night over Syria.

09.23.14 3:49 PM ET

After decades of development and nearly $70 billion spent, the U.S. Air Force’s vaunted stealth jet, the F-22 Raptor, finally made its combat debut over Syria on Monday night.

Military sources confirmed to The Daily Beast that the F-22 participated in the first of three waves to hit an ISIS command and control facility. And the Pentagon tweeted alleged before-and-after photos of a building attacked by the advanced fighter.

The appearance of the Raptor over Syria was a shock to many in the military aviation community; even operational pilots from the F-22 fighter community were initially unaware the jet had flown its first combat mission. And the Pentagon is still keeping close hold over details about what the roughly $150 million aircraft did exactly, and where it flew from.

Last night’s airstrikes hit 14 targets inside Syria. The USS Arleigh Burke, a destroyer, and USS Philippine Sea, a cruiser, launched a total of 47 Tomahawk missiles. Meanwhile, Air Force B-1 bombers, F-15E Strike Eagles and Navy F/A-18 Hornets hit ISIS targets such as training compounds, command and control centers, storage facilities, financial centers, supply trucks, and armed vehicles.

The Raptors appear to have come from the Al Dhafra air base in the United Arab Emirates where the 1st Fighter Wing has deployed a number F-22s from the 27th Fighter Squadron from Joint Base Langley-Eustis. The aircraft were likely escorting friendly fighters and bombers, in addition to the strike on the command-and-control center.

The Raptor, which was developed and built for $66.7 billion, has been a controversial warplane. Then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates canceled the program after only 187 aircraft were ordered because he believed the jet to be a relic of the Cold War—one with little utility in the new century. The Air Force had originally wanted 750 of the jets.

Originally conceived as part of the Advanced Tactical Fighter program that started in 1981, the Raptor only became operational in 2005 after a difficult developmental program. Since then, the $150 million jet has sat out both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the 2011 Libya campaign.

The F-22 has also been dogged with embarrassing glitches, including in 2011, when the entire fleet was grounded due to problems with the high-flying aircraft’s life-support systems. The Raptor routinely flies well above the 50,000-foot ceiling of fighters like the F-15 or F-16 and is limited to 60,000 feet only because a failure in cabin pressurization at those altitudes would almost instantly kill the pilot. That’s because of the so-called “Armstrong limit” at about 62,000 feet, where water boils at the same temperature as human blood.

The Raptor is also difficult and expensive to maintain and is exceedingly difficult to upgrade. Particularly, its stealthy coatings make it a maintenance hog. Further, the jet still does not have a helmet-mounted sight to target enemy aircraft that are not directly in front of it—nor can it mount the latest air-to-air missile just yet.

However, proponents of the Raptor have argued that the Air Force needs roughly 381 of the jets to replace its fleet of aging F-15C Eagle fighters. The Raptor does have fearsome combat capabilities. It is almost invisible to enemy fighter and ground surveillance radars and its exceedingly fast—it can cruise at speeds exceeding Mach 1.8, or nearly twice the speed of sound.

During exercises, it has shown itself in exercises to be able to fly inside enemy territory with near impunity. Its combination of stealth, speed, altitude, extreme maneuverability, and powerful sensors have led to lopsided victories during exercises, where the Raptors will score dozens of kills on “enemy” fighters with no losses. It also has a strike capability. The Raptor can drop two 1,000-pound or eight 250-pound satellite-guided weapons—and it has a powerful “electronic attack” ability where it can jam or fry enemy electronics with its radar.

That’s one skill the F-22 didn’t appear to need on Monday night. The Pentagon said only passive radars tracked into incoming U.S. aircraft; there’s speculation that Damascus may have even turned its defenses off. The Bashar al-Assad regime says that it was told that the strikes were coming. (Washington denies the claim.) 

Either way, the Air Force had the chance to make use of its jet—and perhaps taxpayers are finally seeing some return on their king-sized investment.