Pentagon Restricts F-22 Flights, Safety a Concern

A crew chief signals the pilot of an F-22 Raptor to prepare to taxi March 31, 2011, on the flightline at Kadena Air Base, Japan. The Airmen, along with the F-22s, are assigned to the 525th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska. They deployed to Kadena AB earlier in 2011 to test their capabilities in a new environment and to train with Airmen and aircraft there.

A crew chief signals the pilot of an F-22 Raptor at Kadena Air Base, Japan. The U.S. deployed two Raptors from Japan on Sunday.

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The plane, conceived during the Cold War as a leap-ahead technology that could penetrate the most advanced air defenses, is seen by some as an overly expensive luxury not critical to fighting current conflicts. The fleet of 187 F-22s — the last of which was fielded just two weeks ago — cost an average of $190 million each.

Panetta's predecessor as Pentagon chief, Robert Gates, persuaded Congress to cap production of the F-22 earlier than originally planned. He saw it as primarily of use against a "near-peer" military competitor like China, noting that the plane did not fly a single combat mission during a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

With its stealth design, the F-22 is built to evade radar and has advanced engines that allow it to fly at faster-than-sound speeds without using afterburners. It manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, describes the plane as "the only fighter capable of simultaneously conducting air-to-air and air-to-ground combat missions with near impunity."

The fleet of 170 F-22s is stationed at six U.S. bases: Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska: Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii; Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va.; Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.; Holloman Air Force Base, N.M.; and Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla.

F-22 pilots are trained at Tyndall. Flight testing is at Edwards Air force Base, Calif., and operational testing and tactics development is performed at Nellis.

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Associated Press writer Donna Cassata contributed to this report.

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