A number of United States Air Force stealth F-22 Raptors are slated to take part in an upcoming military exercise in the Western Pacific that is designed to test and improve the Air Force’s ability to operate in a contested environment.
Pacific Iron 2021
That exercise is Pacific Iron 2021, and while the Air Force has not revealed when the exercise will be taking place – saying only that Pacific Iron 2021 is scheduled for some time in July – it will involve a large number of Air Force personnel and equipment. According to United States Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM), roughly 800 Airmen and more than 35 aircraft from Pacific Air Forces and Air Combat Command will take part in Pacific Iron 2021. Aircraft scheduled to take part in the exercise include 10 F-15E Strike Eagles from the 389th Fighter Squadron, 366th Fighter Wing at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho; 25 F-22 Raptors from the 525th Fighter Squadron, 3rd Wing at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, and the 199th Fighter Squadron, 154th Wing, Hawaii Air National Guard at Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam, Hawaii; and two C-130J Hercules from the 374th Airlift Wing from Yokota Air Base, Japan.
According to retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Dan “Fig” Leaf – formerly a deputy commander of U.S. Pacific Command and now a managing director of a security consulting firm, the 25 Raptors scheduled to take part in Pacific Iron 2021 may represent the largest number of F-22s ever committed to a single exercise. That is significant, says Lt. Gen. Leaf, given the high operating cost associated with flying the Raptors.
The Air Force’s current inventory of Raptors, meanwhile, represents the full and final Air Force F-22 fleet. The F-22 program was canceled in 2009 following concerns about the cost of the aircraft and the lack of a clear need for such an expensive dedicated air superiority fighter. Today, even as military competition with adversaries such as China and Russia intensifies, it remains unlikely that the Raptor program will be restarted. This means that the Air Force’s current fleet of Raptors is a finite resource, with the fighters unable to be replaced as they age and log more flight time and making each decision to operate F-22s somewhat more impactful.
That the Air Force is willing to involve what appears to be a record number of F-22s in Pacific Iron 2021 is significant, then, and demonstrates the Air Force’s commitment to the region, according to Lt. Gen. Leaf.
Beyond the Raptors
Personnel and equipment taking part in Pacific Iron 2021 will operate from three separate airfields on both Guam and Tinian, and will conduct Agile Combat Employment (ACE) operations.
ACE are a response to the growing challenge presented to the United States military by both Russia and China as both countries continue to develop capabilities in support of their respective Anti Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) strategies. These strategies are intended to push back United States military forces by limiting their ability to operate safely and effectively in Europe and East Asia, respectively.
China has been supporting its A2/AD strategy in part through the development of an increasingly sophisticated set of missile weaponry. This includes a range of surface-to-air (SAM) weapons and cruise missiles, and also includes longer-ranged ballistic missile systems. These weapons, which incorporate both anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs) as well as an emerging inventory of missiles equipped with hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs), and in the event of a military conflict involving the United States will look to target both U.S. Navy aircraft carriers and U.S. air bases in the region. Targeting these assets threatens to significantly degrade the ability of both the U.S. Navy and Air Force to employ airpower during a potential conflict.
While the development of longer-range aircraft offers a partial solution, the Air Force has also developed the ACE concept as a means to ensure that it can continue to reliably operate in areas where traditional airfields may come under threat. The ACE concept will see Air Force aircraft and personnel operate from a range of both well-established and more modest air bases while also making use of such things as pre-positioned equipment and airlift ability to rapidly deploy, disperse, and maneuver assets in a contested operational theater, and will seek to expand the range of bases from which aircraft can undertake combat sorties.
The participation of as many as 25 F-22s in Pacific Iron 2021 comes in the aftermath of the scrambling of a flight of F-22s operating out of Hawaii in response to the presence of Russian aircraft taking part in a naval exercise in the Pacific.