The U.S. Defense Department spent about $67 billion acquiring a fleet of almost 200 F-22 fighter jets, none of which has yet flown in combat.
That may change with a U.S.-led intervention in Syria, where the stealthy, highly maneuverable plane known as the Raptor may be used to penetrate and attack the country’s air defenses, among other targets.
“Syria is not Libya,” Mark Gunzinger, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a research organization in Washington, D.C., said in a telephone interview with Military.com. “Their air defense systems are more formidable. Using F-22s to help suppress those threats and support penetrating capability may be a good idea.”
The White House is preparing to launch a military strike in the war-torn country after the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad allegedly used chemical weapons against civilians. The Aug. 21 attack around Damascus reportedly killed a few hundred people and may be the deadliest since Saddam Hussein’s forces killed thousands of Kurds with Sarin gas in 1988.
While President Barack Obama said he hasn’t made a decision on whether to conduct a strike, he said there must be consequences for governments that break international norms against the use of chemical weapons.
“It’s important that if, in fact, we make a choice to have repercussions for the use of chemical weapons, then the Assad regime … will have received a pretty strong signal that, in fact, it better not do it again,” he said in an interview yesterday on PBS’s “NewsHour” show.
When pressed on what a limited air campaign will achieve, Obama acknowledged that it won’t “solve all the problems in Syria. It doesn’t obviously end the death of innocent civilians inside of Syria. We hope … a political transition can take place.”
More than 100,000 people have died in the two-year-old uprising against forces loyal to Assad, according to a June estimate from the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the death toll through a network of activists in the country.
Details on what an operation might look like remain murky, though at the very least would probably involve launching a series of Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles, or TLAMs, from ships against such targets as command and control facilities, air defenses and aircraft.
The U.S. and Britain amassed an armada in the Mediterranean within striking distance of Syria. Four Norfolk, Va.-based destroyers — the USS Ramage, USS Mahan, USS Barry and USS Gravely — are already in position, ready to launch the Tomahawk cruise missiles.
At about $1.5 million apiece, the GPS-guided missiles are more expensive than conventional bombs. But they can be launched from a safe distance — at least several hundred miles — and are ideal for hitting so-called “light” targets in fixed locations above ground such as planes, runways, fuel depots, weapon storage areas and Russian-made SA-2 and SA-5 anti-aircraft batteries.
The mission may also involve dropping GPS– and laser-guided bombs from such aircraft as F-15 and F-22 fighter jets and B-2 and B-52 bombers, though the U.S. probably won’t target chemical weapons or stockpiles or other so-called “hard” targets, at least initially, because they’re more difficult to track, pose a threat to civilians and may be buried deep underground.
The F-22 for its air-to-ground mission can carry two 1,000-pound Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or JDAMs; two AIM-120C Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile, or AMRAAMs; and two AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles, according to an Air Force fact sheet.
Operational F-22s are assigned to Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va.; Joint Base
Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska; Holloman Air Force Base, N.M.; and Joint Base
Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, according to a July report from the Congressional Research Service.
The F-22 fleet was grounded for several months in 2011 and aircraft were again restricted from flying in 2012 after pilots complained of oxygen-deprivation symptoms, including dizziness, disorientation and coughs.
The Air Force, which initially struggled to identify the cause of the problem, concluded that a lack of oxygen — not the quality of it — was causing the symptoms, due primarily to a faulty valve on the pilots’ life-support vest.
The service earlier this year lifted flying restrictions on many F-22 fighter jets after upgrading their oxygen system and life-support equipment. It fielded new vest pieces in January and expects to finish installing automatic back-up oxygen systems on the rest of aircraft in the fleet by July 2014.
The aircraft is made by Lockheed Martin Corp., based in Bethesda, Maryland, and its oxygen system is made by Honeywell International Inc., based in Morristown, New Jersey.
Some questioned the Pentagon’s decision to not fly the F-22 in the 2011 allied attack on Libya that toppled former strongman Muammar Gaddafi. Whether to use the aircraft in Syria will be driven by operational requirements, not politics, according to Gunzinger, the analyst.
“The decision will be based on military need,” he said, “not on bureaucratic politics.”