The Pentagon’s newest fighter jet saw combat for the first time on Monday during the U.S.-led attacks against Islamic militants inside Syria. The F-22 Raptor made its fighting debut nearly nine years after the Air Force took delivery of the jet.
The $67 billion F-22 program is one of the most expensive in Pentagon history, and the military is blunt about its perceived advantage: “The F-22 cannot be matched by any known or projected fighter aircraft,” according to the Air Force.
Be that as it may, the Obama administration notified the Syrian government that the strikes were coming on Monday, likely to reduce the risk of a U.S. fighter jet being shot down, and five Arab governments supported the offensive. There was reason to worry about risks from surface-to-air missiles, as the Air Force Times reported: “The Syrian defense system has been cast by Pentagon leadership as highly advanced, and was cited as a reason U.S. forces could not launch raids on the Assad regime in the early days of the Syrian civil war.”
The F-22′s cost was one reason former Defense Secretary Robert Gates pressed to end production in late 2011, at a time when the Air Force had already received 187 of the planes from Lockheed Martin. The first F-22s entered service in December 2005.
Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates coordinated activities in the attacks, which involved 14 airstrikes and the launching of 44 Tomahawk missiles from two destroyers. The U.S. also launched eight airstrikes on its own against an al-Qaeda-allied group operating in Syria that was plotting an “imminent” attack in Europe or the U.S. The coalition attacks in Syria followed four airstrikes by the U.S. against Islamic State inside Iraq earlier on Monday.
While the U.S. and European nations such as France sell capable fighter jets to governments across the region—including the F-16 Fighting Falcon and Dassault Aviation Mirage—the F-22 is by far the most advanced strike jet in the current campaign, with radar-evading and long-range missile launch abilities. Much of the plane’s capability, including its top speed, remains classified.
The strikes on Monday night in Syria represent one of the few times since Saddam Hussein was toppled that the U.S. has flown into a foreign government airspace that has sophisticated anti-aircraft defenses. For the 2011 strikes in Libya, for example, the U.S. contributed F-15 and F-16 fighters, leaving the F-22 out of that fight.