NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. –The F-22 Raptor, long relegated to stateside Air Force hangars since its entry into service, is performing so well in its first combat deployment that older aircraft will likely be required to have a Raptor escort in contested environments from now on, the chief of Air Combat Command said Sept. 15.

Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle said the F-22 is exhibiting “extraordinary” performance in the air campaign against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), where it is being tested in combat and airmen are learning to exploit its capabilities for the first time.

F-22 Raptor
F-22 Raptor

“When you put it in the hands of our airmen, the men and women flying that airplane, it is even better than we thought,” he said at the Air Force Association’s annual Air & Space Conference here.

“We won’t send airplanes into certain areas if they don’t have F-22s with them, because they make everybody better,” he said. “They provide the capability that allows those fourth-generation airplanes to be even better than they would be on their own. In fact, because of the threat environment, we won’t send them in without Raptors.”

The F-22, which until the fight against ISIS had largely sat idle in Air Force hangars, has in the past year flown thousands of combat hours and dropped hundreds of bombs, he said.

“The Raptor is showing itself to be absolutely critical to the success of those air fights and better than we thought it was going to be,” Carlisle said.

The aircraft also has been remarkably reliable in theater, Carlisle said. It has exceeded a rate of 75 to 80 percent mission capability, he said.

“The maintainability and the serviceability of the airplane is doing exceedingly well,” he said. “That airplane…is reaching its stride.”

Raptors have flown alongside F-16s, F-15s and the E/A-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft that specializes in targeting and disrupting or destroying air-defense radar. Carlisle said the Growler is a great airplane and has more electronic attack capability than the F-22, but it is highly visible to enemy air defense radar.

The F-22 itself is almost invisible to radar and, if flying with a non-stealthy aircraft that increases “noise” on enemy radar screens, is nearly impossible to see, Carlisle said. The F-22 and legacy aircraft, therefore, complement each other’s capabilities, he added.

The Air Force wants to enhance the F-22s ability to communicate with fourth-generation aircraft by adding technologies like Link-16 and satellite communications in the near term, he said.

Carlisle said he nightly dreams of restarting the F-22 production line, which was shuttered in 2011. The Air Force currently has only 187 of the fifth-generation stealth fighters, which entered service in 2005. Because the Air Force has such a small fleet of F-22s, it is currently exceeding the flight hours it budgeted for, meaning that the service is having to scrounge for sustainment funds to keep them flying.

That also is creating maintenance work for manufacturers Lockheed Martin [LMT] and Boeing [BA], which Carlisle credited with keeping the small fleet ready for combat. The Pratt & Whitney [UTX] F119 engine also has needed maintenance and overhaul ahead of schedule because of the number of hours the aircraft has been flying in combat.

A squadron of F-22s also recently returned from a deployment to Europe for NATO war games. The deployment, dubbed “Fast Raptor,” was designed to demonstrate the Air Force’s ability to quickly project the stealthy aircraft to combat zones in support of European allies. A similar exercise had already been carried out in the Pacific.

“I don’t think this is a news flash to anybody. We don’t have enough F-22s,” Carlisle said. “We didn’t buy enough. We don’t have enough. If you look at the way we’re using them today in the current fight we are in, when you look at how we will use them in the future fight, we flat don’t have enough F-22s.”