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.
Associated Press writer Donna Cassata contributed to this report.
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