On May 16, a joint exercise saw the integration of two U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptors with South Korean F-35As in a close-quarter air combat scenario over the Korean Peninsula. This marked the inaugural collaboration between these advanced fighter platforms, aimed at refining the aerial combat skills of both nations’ air forces. The Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) reported that the exercise entailed alternating offensive and defensive maneuvers among all four stealth aircraft, facilitating the acquisition of contemporary tactics and proficiency in close-range engagements.

This joint undertaking followed the recent deployment of several U.S. Air Force F-22s to Gunsan Air Base on May 13, emphasizing the strategic significance of their mission. The U.S. Department of Defense underscored the demonstration of the Pacific Air Forces’ capacity to project power to pivotal areas, bolstering command and control capabilities within the Indo-Pacific theater.

Looking ahead, the F-22s under the auspices of the 8th Fighter Wing at Kunsan Air Base are slated for comprehensive maintenance and readiness for forthcoming deployments. Their potential participation in additional joint exercises, particularly amid South Korea’s biennial training, remains contingent upon operational considerations alongside South Korea’s F-35As, F-15Ks, F-16s, and FA-50s.

This marks the F-22s’ first public engagement in South Korea since the Seoul International Aerospace and Defense Industry Exhibition (ADEX) in October last year. The 8th Fighter Wing highlighted the F-22s’ pivotal role in evaluating Agile Combat Employment (ACE) capabilities across the Indo-Pacific theater. ACE, pivotal in the strategic shift vis-a-vis major powers like China, involves agile deployment of small air teams and assets from austere locations, facilitating swift maneuverability and operational flexibility. The U.S. Air Force has intensified ACE training initiatives, with F-22s serving as linchpins in this strategic paradigm.

Both the F-35 and F-22 represent the pinnacle of fifth-generation fighter technology, renowned for their stealth capabilities and advanced avionics. The recent exercise conducted by the South Korean Air Force, while undisclosed publicly, aligns with standard practice of post-exercise debriefings for confidential assessment and analysis.

The F-35 Lightning II, a single-seat, single-engine aircraft, excels in both ground attacks and air defense roles, whereas the F-22 Raptor, also a single-seat platform but with twin engines, is optimized for air superiority missions. Despite its older pedigree, the F-22 remains a vital asset, albeit slated for eventual replacement by the Next-Generation Air Dominance Fighter (NGAD). Unlike the F-22, which is restricted from international sales, the F-35 enjoys widespread popularity in the global market, boasting numerous partner nations and buyers.

The extensive adoption of the F-35 by U.S. allies underscores its advanced capabilities relative to legacy fighter aircraft. Nevertheless, many air forces have yet to subject the F-35 to real combat scenarios. In contrast, the F-22 maintains its competitive edge vis-a-vis the F-35. In a notable 2018 training exercise, two U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptors engaged with two Royal Norwegian Air Force F-35s, with a Norwegian F-35 pilot remarking on the unique advantages gained from training alongside F-22s, particularly in countering non-stealth adversaries.

Distinguishing between the F-35 and F-22, the former was not designed to directly challenge the latter’s air superiority capabilities. While the F-22 stands as a premier air superiority platform, the F-35 prioritizes air-to-ground strike missions while retaining defensive capabilities. Dr. Brent M. Eastwood, an authority on emerging threats and former U.S. Army Infantry officer, highlighted the F-22’s superior speed and agility, noting its Pratt & Whitney F119 engines’ thrust advantage over the F-35’s single F-135 powerplant, potentially conferring a maneuverability edge in aerial engagements.

Despite these performance disparities, the F-35 represents a paradigm shift in modern warfare. According to David Berke, a retired Marine Corps officer proficient in both the F-22 and F-35, the latter serves as a transformative force on the battlefield, acting as a sensor hub and orchestrating other systems effectively. Its stealth capabilities and anti-access aerial denial features render it a formidable asset, adept at operating in contested environments, thereby underlining its indispensability within the U.S. military and among its allied partners.