Sending a message to America's would-be foes in Asia, senior Pentagon officials have declared the F-22 fighter ready for duty and soon will send a squadron to Japan.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is satisfied with an Air Force plan to begin removing flight restrictions on the nearly 190-plane fleet, Pentagon press secretary George Little told reporters Tuesday.
The Lockheed Martin-made jet has been under restrictions mandated by Panetta after a string of pilots reported receiving too little oxygen during flight. Since Panetta slapped distance restrictions to keep them near landing strips, no pilots have reported the oxygen-related condition, known as hypoxia.
Two F-22 pilots have landed complaining of similar symptons since the last hypoxia case on March 8. But Little says those were the result of "mechanical" problems.
One longtime defense analyst says the Air Force's determination that multiple components were to blame is a logical conclusion.
"It figures that the problem was due to several factors, because the search for a single cause did not turn up a convincing answer," says Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, who also is a consultant for defense companies. "The oxygen problem will now fade from public memory and operational concerns."
In a vote of confidence in the most expensive warplane ever constructed, Panetta is deploying one F-22 squadron to Japan's Kadena Air Base--in the backyard of China and North Korea. During their transit flight there, the Raptors will adhere to altitute limits because all the pilots who have come down with hypoxia were at high altitutes, Little says. But once they have arrived, all the restrictions that had limited the squadron will be lifted, Little says.
The Air Force will carry out a "phased" process on the entire F-22 fleet to replace certain valve and hose problems and fix a faulty flight vest, while also installing an automated oxygen system, Little says. That will take time, but as individual jets have been upgraded, the flight restrictions will be lifted for them as well.
The permanent basing of the super-stealthy, super-fast fighter jet comes as the Obama administration is shifting America's national security and foreign policy focus to the Asia-Pacific region. China for years has been developing advanced radars and anti-aircraft weapons. Sending in Raptors during any conflict with China would constitute Washington's best hope at evading those radars and destroying them, the anti-aircraft systems, and other targets ahead of a broader military campaign.
John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter.