U.S. Air Force (USAF) Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley said Jan. 4 that the new F-22 "Raptor" air-dominance fighter will soon be ready for foreign deployment — possibly to South Korea. Unlike in Europe — where militaries are getting smaller — and the Middle East — where conventional warfare has given way to counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations — the United States still faces a significant conventional threat in the Pacific Basin. The mention of South Korea as a possible first foreign deployment for the world's most advanced combat aircraft, therefore, underscores the importance the U.S. military places on maintaining its substantial qualitative advantage in the region The F-22 has been officially part of the USAF's combat inventory since its oldest fighter unit, the 27th Fighter Squadron (FS), reached initial operational capability on the aircraft after trading in its F-15s in December 2005. The 94th FS will be next in line to re-equip with F-22s, followed by the 71st FS. All three squadrons are part of the 1st Fighter Wing located at Langley Air Force Base (AFB) in Virginia. In June, the 27th will take the F-22 on its first long-range deployment when it temporarily relocates to Elmendorf AFB in Alaska while Langley's runway is repaired. After that, the unit probably will deploy outside of U.S. territory, with South Korea a likely temporary destination. In the longer term, however, Okinawa, Japan, seems the most likely foreign base for the F-22s.
The F-22 represents a significant qualitative advance over the fighter it was designed to replace, the F-15 "Eagle." In addition to its stealthy airframe, which makes it more difficult for hostile radar systems to track, it comes with two Pratt and Whitney F-119 turbofan engines, each generating 30,000-35,000 pounds of thrust. These engines enable the F-22 to cruise at 1.5 times the speed of sound. Other fighters, like the F-15, are capable of supersonic flight, but only at the expense of fuel consumption. The F-22's "supercruise" feature enables it to sustain supersonic flight without guzzling fuel. The F-22 comes from the factory with the powerful AN/APG-77 radar and avionics package as standard equipment. The system is built around Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA), which consists of thousands of sensors linked together by a high-speed computer. The AESA can act as a jammer to disrupt enemy sensors and electronic systems, provide secure voice and datalink communications, and analyze enemy electronic emissions. The AN/APG-77 basically makes the F-22 a fairly capable platform for gathering electronic intelligence (ELINT). As it flies near other countries' borders, it can record, categorize and analyze the electronic emissions of the air defense radars as they try to track the aircraft. Sending the 27th FS to Osan or Kunsan Air Bases in South Korea would give the Air Force the opportunity to use the F-22's powerful systems to probe North Korean air defenses, thereby gathering information about their effectiveness and characteristics. In addition, a Korean deployment would give the USAF a chance to evaluate the jet's ELINT function and develop tactics and procedures for using the aircraft in that capacity. The USAF initially wanted 750 F-22s, but at a cost of $250 million each, the order has been cut twice — to a total of 276. Hopes that the unit cost will be defrayed by export sales are not justified — as the U.S. government likely would allow only Japan and Israel to purchase such a technologically sensitive fighter. China, with its rapidly modernizing military, is emerging as the U.S. military's most likely conventional threat. In addition, other air forces are acquiring systems
that are closing the gap with the USAF's aging inventory. In China, the People's Liberation Army Air Force operates large numbers of the very capable Su-27SK and Su-30MMK, and is bringing the indigenously developed J-10 online. To meet this threat, the 44th and 67th fighter squadrons at Kadena Air Base on Okinawa, Japan, could be the next home base for the F-22 after the 1st Fighter Wing at Langley is fully equipped.