According to a U.S. Air Force press release, six US F-22 Raptor fighter jets have been deployed to Poland as part of NATO’s air defense mission. The F-22 Raptor landed at RAF Lakenheath in England on its way to the 32nd Tactical Air Base in Lask, Poland, to support NATO’s air defense mission in Europe. This is the first time in history that F-22 fighter jets have been placed under NATO command to protect airspace in European territories.
The planes sent belong to the 90th Fighter Squadron based at Elmendorf-Richardson Air Force Base in Alaska.
For the world’s most capable air-to-air fighter, this deployment is unprecedented. F-22s have visited Poland before, but only two of them were on what was more of a quick goodwill and reassurance mission than a deployment.
NATO is Trying to tranquillise the Russian Bear
The NATO Air Shielding mission brings together allied air and surface-based air and missile defence units under NATO’s command and control. The mission aims to provide a seamless shield from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Air Force said in its release that this would ensure NATO Allies are better safeguarded while also protecting the Alliance territory, populations and forces from aerial threats.
In an increased effort by the U.S. and its NATO partners, there is an enlargement in the aerial presence in the region, something that began to tick up long before Russia invaded Ukraine. The two-fold objective sought to discourage Putin from taking action while also bolstering NATO’s eastern flank if he did. Henceforth, 120 jets are on high alert. Tod Wolters, then-commander of U.S. European Command and Supreme Allied Commander Europe, told a meeting of NATO defence chiefs in May. There has been a whopping fifty per cent increase in fighter jets patrolling the Eastern European skies.
Before the latest U.S. fighters arrived in Poland, the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW) also deployed its Marine F/A-18 Hornets at Łask Air Base to enhance NATO’s capabilities in Eastern Europe, evidently, at the invitation of Poland.
According to the Kyiv Independent, Konstantin Gavrilov, head of Russia’s delegation on arms control in Vienna, threatened “tougher actions” against the West in response to the influx of arms to Ukraine.
Air Defense started bolstering even before the war
Meanwhile, NATO maintains that the heavy bolstering of its eastern flank has been ongoing since the turn of the year. Initially, it was purportedly in response to Russia’s military build-up on Ukraine’s border. It has continued and, in fact, ramped up due to the eventual invasion.
In a May release, Headquarters Allied Air Command Chief of Staff, Major General Jörg Lebert, said that NATO air forces had bolstered their presence in the Alliance’s eastern part to shield NATO against any aggression. The release further cautioned that several dozen fighter jets are ready to respond to any possible airspace violations and to deter aggression.
In February, fully armed Air Force F-15C and F-15D Eagle fighter jets arrived at Lask to participate in a mission designed to enhance NATO’s collective defence posture and support the permanent Baltic Air Policing (BAP) mission in the region. Those aircraft are now gone, but the stream of U.S. fighters taking up the task has not ceased.
The Air Force release about the F-22s heading to Poland boasts about the Raptor’s capabilities brought to the mission. It is to provide lethality and survivability against any emerging high-end threats, says the release. The Raptor’s ability for air-to-air and air-to-ground tasks fully realises the 21st century Air Force’s vital operational concepts.
Up, Close and Poland: NATO’s Staging Ground for Ukraine
Sharing long borders with Belarus and Ukraine, Poland is strategically located. Its airspace is now defended by Polish F-16s and MiG-29s, assisted by U.S. fighters, including F-35As flying from Spangdahlem in Germany. NATO fighter flights have been continuously supported by the E-3 AWACS aircraft near the Ukraine and Belarus borders and the KC-135 tankers.
Meanwhile, Poland has become a staging ground for foreign arms and other military supplies heading into Ukraine, providing various weapons like tanks and howitzers. The Polish government is also working to bolster its defences, purchasing tanks, howitzers, and aircraft from South Korea and Abrams main battle tanks from the U.S.
F-22 Raptor: The Great American Dinosaur
The release extolling the Raptor also comes as the Air Force seeks the retirement of over twenty-five of the oldest examples of the stealthy jets.
However, that plan may get scrambled. Both the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, which oversee funding and oversight of the Pentagon on behalf of Congress, are trying to make the Air Force not only keep but upgrade the 33 older-model F-22s that the Air Force wants to retire under its 2023 budget proposal plans.
An argument must be made to invest in the most effective F-22s and make them better still, especially with the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program on the horizon and F-35A numbers swelling. On the flip side, the F-22 is already struggling with availability for a mission-capable rate of around 50% in peacetime.
Beyond that, there are only about 125 ‘combat-coded’ Raptors in the inventory at any given time. The training requirement, once factored in, exacerbates the issues. Plus, having some reserve force for possible conflict scenarios could be a significant advantage. Case in point, these F-22s came from Alaska to support this mission. Traditionally, European Raptor deployments have been supported by either the stateside Langley AFB or the Tyndall AFB units.
Regardless, the world’s most capable air-to-air fighter is now headed to a NATO country that borders the latest Russian project, Ukraine. The message is apparent.