HONOLULU — Hawaii Air National Guard F-22s are deploying to an exercise in the Western Pacific that includes a large number—about 25—of the stealth fighters from Hawaii and Alaska that are a key part of the “kick down the door " force for any possible conflict with China.
“Pacific Iron 2021 " will focus on deploying and sustaining air power from smaller and dispersed bases on Guam and Tinian Island in the Northern Mariana Islands and also includes about 10 F-15E Strike Eagles and two C-130J cargo aircraft, Pacific Air Forces said Monday.
Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Dan “Fig " Leaf, a former deputy commander of U.S. Pacific Command and now managing director of security consultancy Phase Minus 1, said he’s not aware of a previous exercise utilizing F-22s in such numbers.
“I’m not in the Department of Defense anymore, so I have no insight into who’s messaging whom specifically, " Leaf said. “But what I would say is if I’m China, I’d pay attention to the message—whether it’s intended for them or not—because this is capability both in the aircraft, the F-22, and the flexibility and expeditionary nature of the U.S. Air Force that goes back to World War I, that they ( China ) can’t duplicate.”
Leaf added that if he were in China’s shoes, “I’d take it as a demonstration of the legitimacy of the American commitment to the region, because messaging is one thing when it’s just words. But this is not just a statement, it’s an investment in capability because it’s not cheap to deploy 25 F-22s from two different bases to the Western Pacific.”
The exercise being held in July — Pacific Air Forces wasn’t more specific — involves more than 35 aircraft and 800 personnel, and takes place at three airports on Guam and one on Tinian.
Although deterrence is the goal, in the event of conflict with China, aircraft with stealth and advanced sensors such as F-22s, F-35 Lightning IIs, B-2 bombers and, in the future, B-21 Raider bombers and the Next Gen eration Air Dominance, or NGAD, fighter, would lead the air campaign.
Once in the Western Pacific, those aircraft—and others—would have to avoid being targeted on the ground by an increasingly sophisticated array of missiles.
Pacific Iron 2021 will focus on simulated combat flight operations using “agile combat employment, " or ACE. Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach, commander of Pacific Air Forces headquartered at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, said during a media briefing in June that instead of concentrating aircraft on large bases, ACE calls for dispersing forces to many hubs and spokes “so that you would be moving about between the hubs and spokes multiple times per day, multiple times per week.”
The strategy “creates a targeting problem for any adversary because not only would they have to target the hubs, but they would also have to target the spokes, " Wilsbach said, “and that really dilutes the amount of firepower that they can put down on any one of those targets.”
He said the Air Force has been “expanding the envelope on ACE in about the last five or six years, " and “as you pay attention to our operations throughout the Pacific, you’re going to see this.”
He added that “we’ve pretty much looked at every piece of concrete in the region, and we’ve analyzed it and assessed it for possible use as places to operate to and operate from.”
The F-22 Raptor is an aircraft that China pays close attention to, meanwhile.
“The F-22 is a fundamentally unique airplane due to the unparalleled integration of stealth, sensor technology, processing power and unrivaled flight performance, " retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula and Douglas Birkey, executive director of the Mitchell Institute, said in a 2020 opinion piece in defensenews.com.
“Adversaries respect the aircraft and that is precisely why they are regularly deployed as a signal of resolve, " the pair wrote. “If conflict erupts, F-22s will be at the forefront of operations.”
The Air Force is looking at replacing the F-22 in the 2030s with the Next Generation Air Dominance fighter—a demonstrator of which already has flown.
Leaf, a former combat pilot with more than 3, 600 flying hours, said if there was a great power conflict “and I was, through some stretch of the imagination, told I was going to participate in it as a fighter pilot, and I had any platform in the world to pick to employ—it would be the F-22.”
That would be his pick as of today, he noted.
“In 2030, it might still be the F-22, but it might not be as dominant as this key enabling capability needs to be. Doesn’t mean it’s still not extraordinarily capable.”