On the 11th of April, 4 Raptors from the 95th Fighter Squadron at Tyndall AFB landed at RAF Lakenheath. These were the first jets of a 12 strong deployment to Europe. The deployment was announced semi-officially by the US Air Forces in Europe Facebook page in the evening on the 11th, and created a great deal of excitement in the spotting world. The purpose of the deployment, however, was centered around the commitment the USA has to Europe in the face of increased Russian aggression on the Eastern borders. The deployment saw around 220 airman from Tyndall deployed to Lakenheath, while a Raptor pair forward deployed to Romania and then Lithuania mid way through the deployment. Right from the beginning the USAF's official message was that of joint training, a chance to train with their NATO allies. Both The RAF and Armée de l'Air had flown with Raptors in a trilateral training exercise from Langley AFB in the last part of 2015. The Raptors coming to Europe was a strong message of reassurance, having the USAF's most modern fighter deployed in such a large number showed a great deal of support to Europe's forces.
On Thursday the 14th there was an official press day, with flying starting on the following Monday 18th. A bonus of the deployment was the Raptor's involvement in the 100th Anniversary celebrations of the Lafayette Escadrille on the 20th of April. The USAF sent a four ship Raptor and single B-52H for the flypast. The flypast marked a pivotal commemoration as the Lafayette Escadrille was made up of volunteer US pilots, these would be the first Americans to see combat in the air. The brave young men of the Lafayette Escadrille laid the foundations of the heritage and history that the USAF hold dear. The 95th FS pilots also visited some local schools to talk to students about USAF life and the Raptor's capabilities.
During the Raptors' time in Europe they trained with all of the 48 Fighter Wings Squadrons and RAF Typhoons. The opportunity to train with the F-22 is an important part of integrating the 5th generation fighter capabilities into standard operation. The USAF is having to utilise the F-22 in a different way after production was ceased. Having such a small fleet of 186 airframes means that the Raptor is having to act as an air superiority fighter in miniature, as well as a stealthy scout that can enhance the fighting capability of fourth generation fighters around it. The development of the TALON HATE pod for the F-15 and in turn having a functioning data link with the F-22 means that target information can be shared, and the lethality of the F-15C increased. While the TALON HATE pod is not in service as of publishing, the chance to train with the F-22 and use, and potentially fight, the capability the Raptor brings to the fight, is an important training opportunity and one that will become more important as the F-35 and other sensor fusion platforms enter service.
The deployment ended on the 8th of May with 8 Raptors leaving RAF Lakenheath, the rest of the jets returned throughout the week after. It was a welcome sight and sound to have F-22's in the UK, and one I hope will happen more frequently as the Raptor matures as a platform.