HICKAM AIR FORCE BASE, Hawaii - The top U.S. Air Force commander in the Pacific said the service will likely deploy the world's most advanced fighter jet, the F-22, to Guam or another location in the region next year after it sets up a squadron of the new planes in Alaska.
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The Air Force plans to locate two F-22 stealth fighter squadrons, each with 18 jets, at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska, where they will replace existing squadrons of F-15s. The first planes are due to arrive in August and the first squadron is expected to be complete by January.
Gen. Paul V. Hester said the planes could head out sometime between the spring through the fall of next year if the jets survive the Alaskan winter well and the squadron adjusts to the new jets.
"I would expect there's an opportunity for us to take a small contingent and deploy them in the Pacific arena somewhere," Hester said in a recent interview at his headquarters.
The F-22s have so far deployed overseas only once, when the Air Force sent 12 of the jets from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia to the southern Japanese island of Okinawa for three months of training earlier this year.
The U.S. territory of Guam would be a good place for the first Alaska-based planes to visit, Hester said. Okinawa, where the jets could repeat this year's training trip, would be another option, he said.
The general added the new squadrons will likely deploy to other spots around the region in coming years as they become part of the Air Force fleet.
"I expect they would go to the (Korean) peninsula, they'll be all over the Pacific doing business just as we see F-15s and F-16s doing their business today," Hester said.
The F-22 has unmatched capabilities to travel at supersonic speeds for long periods. F-22 pilots also are given a clear picture of where their enemies are in the battlefield even when those enemies can't see the F-22.
The jet proved itself during training exercises in Alaska last year when F-22 planes scored "kills" against 144 fighter jets. The F-22 opponents in the war games, older model F-15s and F-16s, were unable to "kill" even one F-22.
Hester praised the Okinawa deployment for showing the U.S. commitment to peace and stability in the region and the importance the U.S. places on its alliances with Japan and South Korea.
It also enabled pilots to train in the F-22s with Japanese fighter jets, he said.
"The deployment gave us great confidence in what we had built, now we've practiced it and it turned out well," Hester said.
The Air Force has plans to base an F-22 squadron at Hickam Air Force Base starting in 2011, when they will replace an existing squadron of F-15s. The Hawaii Air National Guard will fly and maintain the jets together with active duty airmen.
F-22s will also be based in New Mexico where they will replace F-117 stealth fighters.
The Air Force and defense contractors have been developing the F-22 for decades, but the plane only became operational - or available for combat missions - in December 2005.