F-22 Taking Fire Again, One Expert Says 'Shame On Panetta'

Amid new pilot reports of in-flight oxygen issues, one expert says an independent review is needed.

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F-22 Raptors
A group of F-22 Raptors.

The Pentagon is under fire yet again after two more F-22 pilots experienced oxygen deprivation while flying in the most expensive fighter jet ever made, but the new incidents will not ground Raptors based near Iran.

Virginia Democratic Sen. Mark Warner and Illinois Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger are demanding answers from the Pentagon after an F-22 pilot in Hawaii radioed in an oxygen-related emergency last Friday, which occurred just two weeks after a Raptor pilot in Virginia allegedly experienced his own bout of in-cockpit oxygen deprivation.

The lawmakers are alleging the number of oxygen-related issues reported by pilots of the Lockheed Martin-made fighter could be as high as 36, more than the 21 incidents the Air Force previously revealed to the lawmakers. The duo has asked Air Force Secretary Michael Donley for clarity on those differing figures.

Warner and Kinzinger also want the Air Force to cough up details about whether certain safety systems and subcomponents were properly tested as the oxygen-deprivation cases were mounting.

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Because several F-22 Raptor pilots have reported hypoxia symptoms mid-flight, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta hit the Air Force's prized fighter fleet with flight restrictions in May after growing worried about the jets being safe in all circumstances. Panetta limited the distances the F-22s can fly during a single mission, while also ordering a fleet-wide installation of an automatic backup oxygen system.

But some experts told DOTMIL at that time that the F-22 restrictions are not that tight.

F-22 proponents, like Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, have said the Raptor fleet's problems should dissipate after the service completes a fleet-wide program to automate the fighters' oxygen systems.

"The most likely outcome is the Air Force will finish automating the oxygen system across the fleet, and gradually, the political system will forget about this," Thompson told DOTMIL in May.

The F-22 fleet has never been used in combat—though Pentagon officials say if a combat scenario called for the super-stealthy and super-fast jet's attributes, it would be used.

Pentagon officials in recent months sent a Raptor squadron to Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates, near the Iranian border. Some military analysts say the move was intended as a message to Tehran, which is resisting U.S. and Western attempts to halt its nuclear weapons program.

Asked whether the latest oxygen issues would affect the UAE-based squadron, the Pentagon's press secretary replied on Tuesday: "No, it does not."

Some critics say Panetta has not done enough, and are urging him to bring in an outside group to investigate problems with the service's prized fighter jet.

"The F-22 incidents seem to be accelerating in their occurrence. Without understanding their nature, the Air Force is playing with the pilots lives by keeping them in the air without knowing what the problem is, let alone having a solution in hand," says Winslow Wheeler, a former congressional defense aide now with the Project On Government Oversight.

"The Air Force has used up more than a year to sort this out. It has failed miserably," Wheeler says. "Clearly, it's time for an independent, objective investigation by a competent authority. Shame on Panetta for not going outside the interested parties for exploring the nature of the problem and fixing it."

As for the UAE-based squadron, Wheeler paints an ominous picture: "No one knows when, not whether, this problem will affect the pilots now deployed in the few F-22s in the Persian Gulf."

John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at jbennett@usnews.com or follow him on Twitter.

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