During the months of April and May 2016 the U.S. Air Force sent the largest-to-date deployment of 5th generation fighters, the F-22A Raptor, to the European Theater under the 'Rapid Raptor' concept. Despite today's advanced technology in communications across the globe, the U.S Air Force were able to keep the deployment out of the media and public eye until the aircraft began to arrive at RAF Lakenheath in England early April 2016. The 12 aircraft and in excess of 220 airmen and associated equipment would be stationed at Lakenheath for the duration of the exercise to carry out an intensive training program.
Iron Hand 2016, RAF Lakenheath, England
The F-22's are from the 95th Fighter Squadron of Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida, and are assigned to the 325th Fighter Wing. The aircraft made their transatlantic crossing in the following three stages:
11 April 2016 (Tabor 41-44 Flight) consisting of 04-4081, 05-4095, 05-4101 and 05-4106.
12 April 2016 (Tabor 21-24 Flight) consisting of 04-4072, 04-4080, 05-4094 and 05-4107.
17th April 2016 (Tabor 31-34 Flight) consisting of 05-4084, 05-4086, 05-4089 and 05-4091.
Crossing the Atlantic Ocean the F-22s would require a dozen air-to-air refueling connections. Although this amount of refueling is not necessary, it is standard procedure to keep the aircraft ‘topped up’ should there be a need to divert due to severe weather or unforeseen mechanical issues.
Asked if there were any logistics or transit issues from the United States to the UK, MSgt Darrick Thompson of the 95th replied "there were
no issues to report and transatlantic pod
hops are routine for an operational
F-22 squadron supporting
Interestingly for this deployment, it was the first time that a 4-ship of clean F22s (minus external fuel tanks) ventured 9 hours across the Atlantic. As an early demonstration of the Rapid Raptor concept, once the first wave of aircraft had reached Northern UK airspace they departed from the tanker and joined up with F-15Es of the 48th Fighter Wing from RAF Lakenheath and conducted a training sortie. Following landing late afternoon on 11 April 2016 the ground crew prepared the aircraft for another sortie which would take-off only a few hours later that evening. The evening mission simulated multiple advanced air-to-air and surface-to-air threats, dropping ordinance and working with local assets stationed in the UK. This type of intensive training highlights how the U.S. Secretary of Defense could respond to a crisis situation by sending a proven 5th generation combat aircraft anywhere in the world and to engage selected targets at a moment’s notice.
While in Europe the 95th FS would conduct air training with other USAF and Europe-based assets including the F-15's of the 48th Fighter Wing from Lakenheath, the RAF's Typhoon FGR4 of 3 Squadron from Coningsby, and Tornado aircraft from Marham. The exercise with local assets was assigned the name 'IRON HAND' and involved working together in both defensive and offensive strategies. MSgt Thompson explained that "Fighter Integration (FI) tactics focuses on the synergistic effects that can be harvested by successfully playing to each fighter's strengths while avoiding, as a package, individual potential weaknesses. As an example during an Offensive Counter-Air focused training mission, the F-15Cs integrated with F-22s to gain air dominance against an advanced air-to-air fighter threat, allowing the F-15Es to roam freely across the battle space and further integrate with F-22s to Find, Fix, Target, Track, Engage and Assess both medium and long-range Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) sites in a contested Integrated Air Defense System (IADS) environment."
Frontline Aviation were privileged to be invited by the 100th ARW to document the activities of the F-22's and F-15's air-to-air. For a flight which would last approximately 2 hours we would be taking 70,000lbs worth of fuel into the arena, offloading to a total of 10 receiver aircraft (x4 F-22’s of ‘Warman Flight’ and x6 F-15E’s of ‘Nail Flight’).
As digitally shown in the above image the first wave of F-22 aircraft approached from the front port-side, gracefully slipping in behind the tanker. The aircraft then climbed and adjusted their speed to create a formation with the tanker - two aircraft off each wing. One by one the aircraft moved into position to receive fuel off the boom.
Unlike the F-15, that has its refueling receptor parallel to the canopy and to the side of the left intake, the receptor for the boom on the F-22 is positioned centrally and behind the pilot. This means that much of the work is done by the boom operator whom has a clear view of the connection point. The operator moves the boom via a control panel and stick, carefully aligning the connection points whilst giving clear and concise instructions to the pilot in terms of speed and positioning of the aircraft in relation to the boom. The Boom Operator, Jeffery Sparks, explained that “although fuel would be discharged at a rate of 2000lbs per minute into the F-22's, the boom is capable of supporting 6500lbs per minute depending on the receiver aircraft type and connection.” The F-22’s remained in contact for approximately 3 minutes before disconnecting and returning to the combat arena.
Along with air-superiority missions a pair of F-22’s were authorized to carry out low-level performance handling during the deployment. Utilizing the experience of the 48th FW whom fly low-level in the UK on a frequent basis, flying the Mach Loop in North Wales would offer a unique opportunity to the 95th FS allowing pilots to hone their low-level proficiency in mountainous terrain which is not available to them at their home station in Florida. MSgt Thompson stated that “many pilots in the 95th FS have previous experience operating on the ranges in the Western US and Alaska, which are quite similar to the ranges in Wales, however flying a Raptor through the Mach Loop requires significant mission planning and a spot-on crosscheck to mitigate the inherent risks of tactical maneuvering close to the ground such as decreased time-to-impact.”
MSgt Thompson continued explaining the operation by saying that “a significant level of planning went to our low-level mission. This began with a thorough review of UK Low Fly and local procedures to include route abort procedures, bird avoidance, and enroute weather considerations. The bulk of the mission planning day was spent building the low fly route map which included NOTAMS and bird/noise avoidance areas, and fuel planning. The mission brief involved all participants in the low level exercise and covered the entirety of mission in significant detail, including a computer generated 'live fly' of the route and an in-depth discussion on contingencies. As a result of the detailed mission planning process and leverage of the experience of the 48th FW, the execution of the mission went off without a hitch.”
The 95th FS has flown a continuous 16 sorties per day during the exercise. When questioned about what lessons had been learnt MSgt Thompson reflected upon the deployment and advised that, “although flying the F-22 in Europe is no different than anywhere else in the world, the uniqueness of Fighter Integration with NATO allies provides the greatest training value. The crosstalk that happens across multi-national MDS's (Mission Designation Series) throughout the brief, execution, and debrief provides the bulk of the lessons learned which are invaluable to our future coalition operations.”
'Qid 140' approaching the threshold of RAF Mildenhall, runway 29
Outside of the increased operations tempo MSgt Thompson advised that the Airmen and groundcrew of the 95th FS had the opportunity to explore a variety of towns to experience the British culture. Darrick went on to say that “all members of the squadron are extremely humbled by both the level of enthusiasm showed for their arrival and the sheer amount of history found throughout the countryside.”
The 95th FS departed RAF Lakenheath in two waves on 8th and 10th May respectively. The deployment successfully resulted in old relationships being strengthened and new relationships with Nato partnering countries being forged.
MSgt Darrick Thompson (95th FS)
TSgt Eric Burkes (48th FW)
SSgt Stephanie Longoria (48th FW)
SrA Victoria Taylor (100th ARW)
SrA Justine Rho (100th ARW)
...and not forgetting the outstanding crew of ‘Qid 140’ (KC-135R, 63-7999)
Capt Darren Ward
Capt Scott M. Platow
LCol John A. Johnson
and Boom Operator MSgt Jeffery Sparks (who lived up to his name when F-15E's deployed flares for the camera at close quarters:)
We would like to sincerely thank the following United States Air Force personnel for their dedicated help in producing this report;
2-D thrust vectoring
First combat role:
$143 Million (£97.8m)
44 feet, 6 inches
16 feet, 8 inches
35,000 lbs per engine (70,000 lbs combined)
Mach 2+ (over 1500 mph)
- M61A2 20mm Cannon (480 rounds)
- Two AIM-9 Missiles
- Six AIM-120 Missiles
or two of each of the above missiles plus
- Two 1,000 JDAMS
23 September 2014, Syria
The F-22's had recently completed a RED FLAG exercise at Nellis AFB, working alongside RAF Typhoons. This partnership was reignited in the UK allowing Aircrews to test their interoperability and mission planning processes. MSgt Thompson stated "we flew a variety of Offensive and Defensive missions with the Typhoons and GR4 Tornados, relying on them in differing capacities as dictated by the tactical scenario.
During these missions aircraft would exceed their fuel capabilities and require replenishment to prolong endurance in the combat arena, before returning to base. The 100th Air Refueling Wing (ARW) based at RAF Mildenhall provided the important logistics by sending a dedicated Boeing KC-135R Stratotanker into Air-to-Air-Refueling-Area-8 (AARA8) over the North Sea.
Whilst deployed the Aircrews not only participated in the exercise IRON HAND, but aircraft were also involved in a flypast commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the Lafayette Escadrille in Paris. Two aircraft were also forward deployed from RAF Lakenheath to Romania and Lithuania (NATO's partnering states) for a short period to maximize training opportunities and demonstrate the USAF's commitment to NATO allies, and deter any actions that may de-stabilize regional security.