RAF Lakenheath F-22 Raptor Deployment

Tuesday 3rd May 2016

It cannot have escaped your attention that for the past month, the skies over Suffolk have played host to some stealthy, and rather rare visitors to these shores. The deployment of no fewer than twelve F-22A Raptors to RAF Lakenheath had a number of objectives, and involved various NATO nations together alongside our own RAF. The deployment certainly drew the attention of potentially confrontational governments and keen aviation enthusiasts alike.

Andy Evans has spent a good deal of time at RAF Lakenheath over the past month with the men and women of the 95th Fighter Squadron and their F-22A Raptors. He reports on what the US and the UK wanted to achieve from the deployment. Photography by the author and the UKAR Staff Team.

Whilst the airshow season has got off to an uneasy start and the road ahead throughout the 2016 season looks to be tough, for the military aviation enthusiast it's looking like a year to remember with several overseas deployments to the UK planned. In the four and a half months that have passed so far we have already seen Turkish F-16s at RAF Lossiemouth and French Rafales at RAF Leeming. It's also common knowledge that we will see the first international deployment of the USAF F-35A and international debuts of the RAF/USMC F-35B during the summer, not to mention another contingent of USAF strategic bombers at RAF Fairford later this year. The en masse visit from Tyndall AFB's 95th Fighter Squadron, which came as a complete surprise to most, will surely rank up there with the best military movements of the year though.

Arriving over the course of a week in three flights of four, the twelve Raptors represented the largest deployment of the type to Europe to date. During their roughly month-long stay at RAF Lakenheath, small numbers of aircraft have forward deployed to nations that border the ever present threat of Putin's Russia, namely Romania and Lithuania. They have also taken part in the centenary celebrations of Lafayette Escadrille in France and operated on an almost daily basis within British airspace alongside both the 48th Fighter Wing's own F-15 Eagles and the RAF's Typhoons. The significance of the deployment was not lost on the USAF, who were keen to show off this historic deployment to the world.

Standing proudly in front of the assembled dignitaries, press and, of course, one of the 95th Fighter Squadron's Raptors, senior USAF and RAF officers were on a mission to clearly spell out what the main purpose of this historic deployment really was. Vice Commander of the 48th Fighter Wing, Colonel David Eaglin stated "Sending F-22s into the European theatre clearly demonstrates the United States' resolve and commitment to the region, and shows we stand together to maintain a Europe that remains free, prosperous, stable and at peace…", a statement that was further reinforced by the Air National Guard Assistant to the USAFE-Africa Commander, Major General Eric Vollmecke, who said "We do not waiver in our commitment to our alliance…we stand together in the face of any threat".

Adding a British twist to proceedings and cementing the unique bond between Britain and America, the Typhoon Force commander, Air Commodore Ian Duguid, added "We welcome your nation's commitment to the special relationship between our two nations. European peace cannot be taken for granted, and our shared commitment to NATO continues to deter any aggressor or would-be adversary. Your presence here is a force for good and I am proud that our airmen and airwomen continue to stand shoulder-to-shoulder to defend our shared values".

It may all seem like sabre-rattling in the face of the Russians, however this deployment was designed to show one thing: that the United States, through NATO, has the ability to rapidly put the world's most advanced and effective operational combat aircraft in their back garden.

As a veteran of the unit, Col. Eaglin was eager to highlight that the 95th Fighter Squadron (nicknamed the 'Boneheads') has an illustrious history of operating in Europe and Africa. Flying P-38 Lightnings, the unit first saw combat in Algeria before moving through Sicily and Italy. By the end of the Second World War, the 95th FS had seven aces and, for flying hundreds of miles at 100ft to attack airfields in Foggia on 25 April 1943, the unit was awarded the Distinguished Unit Citation. With such a prestigious background, how were the 'Boneheads' looking to build on that history with this deployment?

Pilots on the F-22 force were known to us only by their callsigns. 'Scar', who has been flying Raptors for three years straight out of flight training, explained to UKAR that they wanted to use the deployment in order to integrate better with NATO allies, in particular the RAF's Typhoon force. This integration would range from flying alongside them to undertaking dissimilar air combat training (DACT) against them. Whilst the Raptor wins hands down in the beyond visual range arena, both are closely matched in a dogfight scenario - especially taking into account the fact that the Raptor does not have a Helmet Mounted Sight system. The pilots were very much looking forward to consolidating and developing their combat abilities against another agile opponent.

Those that followed the arrival of the 95th to Lakenheath may have astutely noticed that the first wave did not carry external fuel tanks but the remainder did; making many curious about the change in operating procedure. Scar was able to advise that the first wave flew without tanks to prove that the Raptor was capable of a long range deployment/mission in full combat configuration without affecting their stealth capabilities. Scar never said if this was to test a capability or whether it was intended as another message to those that may threaten Europe, but we can't help suspect it may have been the latter.

The Raptors, however, didn't arrive in the UK without some in-house local knowledge to help plan operations - thanks to the 95th Fighter Squadron's assistant director of operations, Major Michael Frye, who forward deployed with the unit. Between 2008 and 2011, Major Frye was once a member of RAF Lakenheath's own 493rd Fighter Squadron where he flew the legendary F-15C Eagle. Speaking to the USAFE website, he couldn't help but reminisce upon his return, "It's very nostalgic being back; I loved being stationed at Lakenheath, and it truly feels like I haven't missed a day". Whilst Major Frye had a passion from childhood to fly the Eagle, his experiences in the Raptor have highlighted to him how much more advanced this fifth generation fighter really is, "The F-15 is a combat proven aircraft, it was designed to provide air superiority against legacy threats. In contrast, the F-22 was designed to combat the more modern threats of today".

As the Raptors would be operating closely with the RAF Typhoons for the duration of their deployment, Air Commodore Duguid was keen to discuss what benefit the RAF would gain from joint operations. After last year's visit of the Indian Air Force with their highly agile Su-30MKIs, and the dubious claims in the Indian press following the visit about their successes against the RAF, it was unclear what could be gained from DACT with an equally agile opponent. The Air Commodore explained that flying against the Su-30MKI trained RAF pilots in DACT against a potential type they may have to fight in real life - in reality, they would never have to fight the F-22 and in that regard it represented "no value". Instead, the missions and the DACT would be designed to help both types integrate as a single fighting force, working off each other's strengths and defending their weaknesses. The Air Commodore further detailed that this was an expansion of recent exercises that had occurred in the US between Raptors and Typhoons, most recently involving French Rafales as well, and that the primary unit flying with the Raptors would be 3 Squadron from RAF Coningsby.

An opportunity to discuss the Typhoon with the force commander could not be overlooked and therefore we took the opportunity to ask the Air Commodore about the proposed future status of the Tranche 1 fleet. He advised that two new squadrons are to stand up to conduct both air defence and also to act as an aggressor force. However, decisions on basing and squadron numbers have yet to be made. It was, however, acknowledged that the logical basing was one squadron at RAF Coningsby and another at RAF Lossiemouth. Other options are also being investigated, including basing both squadrons at a single location to reduce the unique logistical costs associated with the Tranche 1 Typhoon.

The sight of large numbers of stealth aircraft in British skies is a sign of things to come, particularly in East Anglia. With RAF Marham becoming the home of the RAF F-35 fleet from 2018 and RAF Lakenheath playing host to F-35A units from 2020, there is certainly a strong fifth generation future for the region. Who knows, we may even see a unit of F-22As move to Lakenheath if tensions continue. In the midst of the doom and gloom that seems to be setting in throughout the air enthusiast community, this deployment has been a source of joy and excitement (especially for those that were lucky enough to catch them on low level operations in the 'Mach Loop'). Let's hope that continues and we see more deployments of this scale in the future.

On behalf of UKAR and the Staff members that assisted Andrew, we would like to extend our gratitude and thanks to the men and women of the RAF Lakenheath Public Affairs Office for their hospitality and cooperation throughout the duration of this deployment.