The F-22, world’s priciest fighter jet, finally flies in combat


After nearly a decade of being derided as dangerous to fly and an example of wasteful military spending, the radar-evading F-22 fighter jet flew in combat for the first time in this week’s U.S.-led airstrikes in Syria.

The Pentagon said it used the stealthy warplane in coordinated strikes with other fighter jets and bombers against Islamic State strongholds and facilities in northern Syria.

Lt. Gen. William Mayville, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the aircraft helped drop GPS-guided bombs on an array of targets, including militants’ headquarters, training camps, barracks and combat vehicles.


The F-22’s apparent success is a dramatic turnaround from three years ago, when the fighter was grounded for nearly five months because of safety problems stemming from a faulty oxygen supply system.

For a while, the plane’s future was very much in doubt.

The sleek, diamond-winged fighter was conceived during the Cold War to thump a new generation of Soviet jets in dogfights. But after the Soviet Union collapsed, Moscow never built those fighters.

Designed in part in Burbank and built in Marietta, Ga., the F-22 won the final go-ahead from Congress in 1991, thanks in part to a lobbying campaign by the plane’s manufacturer, Lockheed Martin Corp. (then Lockheed Corp.), and its nearly 1,100 subcontractors in 44 states.

The plane can hit supersonic speeds without using afterburners, enabling it to fly faster and farther. It carries cutting-edge radar and sensors, supposedly enabling a pilot to track and shoot an enemy aircraft before that craft can detect the F-22.

The Air Force says the plane is essential to maintaining U.S. air dominance around the world. But it faced an insurmountable problem.

The Pentagon said it was too advanced for low-tech enemies. It sat in hangars while other U.S. warplanes pummeled targets in Afghanistan. It went unused during the war in Iraq. There was no call for it in the conflict above Libya.


Two decades ago, the Pentagon planned to buy 648 F-22s for $139 million apiece. But the cost ultimately soared to $412 million, the Government Accountability Office said, making it the most expensive fighter jet ever.

Then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates ended the purchase in 2009 at 188 planes, saying production was too expensive. The Air Force received the last F-22 in 2012.

The plane was originally intended to replace F-15 combat jets that date back to the early 1970s. But those F-15s still represent the bulk of a so-called air superiority fleet — the jets that are supposed to outgun enemy aircraft and gain control of the sky.

When the F-22 entered service in 2005, it didn’t take long for maintenance and other problems to arise.

Over the years, F-22 pilots have reported dozens of incidents in which the jet’s systems weren’t feeding them enough oxygen, causing wooziness. One pilot died in 2010 when his oxygen system began to fail.

The problem led officials to ground the entire F-22 fleet for nearly five months in 2011. The next year, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta directed the Air Force to limit all F-22 flights to remain near potential landing sites in case a pilot experienced oxygen deprivation.


The plane returned to regular service three months later, but it drew no notice until a news conference Tuesday at the Pentagon, at which Mayville displayed black-and-white photographs showing several targets before and after the airstrikes in Syria.

In one image, a purported Islamic State command and control building in Raqqah was seen with its rooftop communications systems obliterated, the rest of the building left virtually untouched.

The GPS-guided bombs that took out the systems were delivered by F-22 fighters, Mayville said.

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