JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Virginia — Screaming through the air along southern Virginia's coast, the Air Force's F-22 Raptor routinely puts on a dazzling show of loops, dives and combat maneuvers designed to bedevil and defeat opponents before they ever know it's there.
But in its first months of combat in the skies above Iraq and Syria, the stealthy jet's contribution has been more of an escort role, using its high-tech sensors and communications to guide and protect other fighters that are actually dropping the bombs.
In the nearly 10 months the Raptor has been flying combat missions against Islamic State militants, the F-22 fighters have flown just 204 sorties. Of those, the Raptors launched airstrikes in about 60 locations, and dropped 270 bombs, as of July 9. In contrast, the U.S. and coalition aircraft have flown nearly 44,000 sorties since last August, including refueling and surveillance flights, and have conducted airstrikes in close to 7,900 locations.
Air Force leaders and the pilots who fly the F-22 say, however, that the Iraq and Syria deployments have given them greater insights into how well it can sweep up information about enemies beyond the horizon and spread that intelligence to the fighters moving in to strike targets on the ground.
"The F-22s make other U.S. aircraft more survivable. It really is enabling all the rest of the team," Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told The Associated Press. "Perhaps this is a good model to think about for the future."
Officials acknowledge that the counterinsurgency fight against IS isn't the main type of combat the F-22 was built to wage. The high-performance fighter is designed to excel in more challenging combat situations, with its abilities to evade sophisticated air defense systems and be nearly invisible to other highly capable aircraft. Its advanced engines allow it to fly at faster-than-sound speeds without using afterburners that consume more fuel.
"Flying it where we are now, I would not say is a very dense or a very high threat environment," said Maj. Gen. J.D. Harris, Jr., vice commander of Air Combat Command at Joint Base Langley-Eustis. In Iraq and Syria he said, "its primary role is to make sure that it dominates the sky, so it keeps other air forces down on the ground, keeps them away from our airplanes that are not as good in the air-to-air role."
He said the flights in Iraq and Syria have reinforced what the aircraft can do as a commander and coordinator on the battlefield — capabilities that will become increasingly important as more countries beef up their air defenses.
"This isn't the sort of combat for which the F-22 was conceived," said Loren Thompson, head of the Arlington, Virginia-based Lexington Institute, a think tank. "I don't think the war against ISIS is sufficiently challenging to teach F-22 pilots big lessons about the plane."
He added that using the F-22 in Syria, including to escort and provide surveillance and protection for other strike aircraft, makes sense because the U.S. may have been unsure what the Syrian regime might do. Syria has fairly sophisticated air defenses and the U.S. would want to reduce the risk of any fighters being shot down.
Maj. Cameron, a pilot who deployed to Iraq earlier this year to fly the F-22, is with the Virginia Air National Guard's 192nd Fighter Wing. He flew one combat mission in Iraq, doing a six-hour sortie escorting and guiding other fighters. His last name is being withheld at the request of the Air Force, in order to protect the identity of pilots who fly missions against IS.
His job, he said, was to help the F-16s and other fighter jets do their strikes.
"Their mission is getting the bombs on target, on time, finding the right target and minimizing collateral damage," said Cameron. "The more time they have to focus on that part of the mission, the more successful we're going to be in the long run. So, the F-22 ... it's another eye in the sky, if you will, to help them focus on the mission."
Conceived decades ago, the F-22 program has had a bumpy history, from massive cost overruns and design troubles to safety concerns in 2011 when the jets were grounded for four months after pilots complained of dizziness and lack of oxygen. The Air Force later blamed a faulty valve in the pilots' pressure vests. The part was replaced and air flow to pilots was increased.
The aircraft cost an average of $190 million each, and the total program has exceeded $67 billion. The Air Force initially sought to buy more than 400 F-22s, but that plan was sharply cut back in 2009 by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates and production was capped at 187.
Never flown during the initial Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the fighter made its combat debut last September during the second wave of airstrikes over Syria, when the battle against IS in Iraq was expanded. During that mission, the F-22 dropped bombs on an IS command-and-control building in Raqqa, destroying it.
Out on the flight line at Langley, F-22s are lined up, waiting for pilots to take their training missions over the ocean. Under a blistering sun last week, four pilots strode out to their fighters and climbed into the cockpits, while crews went through long final checks of its avionics and other systems. As the hatch on one closed and the crew chief saluted, one of the pilots pumped both fists into the air as he moved his F-22 into line and out onto the runway.
Moments later, they shot into the air, followed by a number of T-38 Talons, the supersonic jet trainers who were playing the role of enemy fighters in the air-to-air exercise.
"When you're flying, it's like doing any other job. You get focused on the job, the mission. But every so often there's that lull," said Cameron. "So whether you're going to or from the airspace and it's just kind of that quiet part of whatever you might be doing, whether you're sitting at the end of the runway getting ready to take off, you always have those moments ... 'I'm sitting in an F-22. I'm pretty darn lucky.'"
Associated Press writers Robert Burns and Sagar Meghani contributed to this report.