A squadron of Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptors has been deployed to Qatar to strengthen U.S. Forces stationed in the Gulf region in the wake of the shootdown of a U.S. Navy RQ-4A BAMS-D remotely piloted aircraft and amid continuing tension with Iran. The F-22s, from Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, arrived at Al Udeid air base on June 27, their first deployment to the Qatar base. The deployment was undertaken “in order to defend American forces and interests in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility,” said U.S. Central Command.
Al Udeid is the forward command headquarters of Air Forces Central Command (AFCENT) and a major hub of U.S. air operations in the Gulf/Southern Asia region. F-22s were operated for some time from the other main U.S. Middle East base—Al Dhafra in the UAE—on a rolling deployment that ended in 2018, and they conducted their first air strike from there against targets in Afghanistan in November 2017.
Tensions have been growing with Tehran for some time, resulting in an earlier deployment of four B-52 bombers to Al Udeid, which began flying missions on May 12, and the dispatch of the Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group to the Gulf. Additional F-15E Strike Eagles, Patriot air defense batteries, and more reconnaissance assets have also been deployed, while F-35As are on detachment at Al Dhafra. The recent attacks on shipping, plus attempts to down U.S. RPAs (including unsuccessful firings on MQ-9 Reapers prior to the RQ-4A shootdown) have further heightened the standoff. A retaliatory air strike after the RPA downing was called off just “10 minutes” before launch, according to President Trump, but a cyber attack on the Iranian air defense network was carried out.
In the meantime, the U.S. Air Force’s program executive officer for weapons, Brigadier General Anthony Genatempo, told a defense media gathering in mid-June that development of the Lockheed Martin AIM-260 Joint Air Tactical Missile is under way, with the F-22 and the Navy’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet likely to be the first recipients. AIM-260 is a long-range air-to-air missile that represents a major improvement in performance over the AIM-120D AMRAAM. Its development has been accelerated due to the appearance of the Chinese PL-15/PL-21 weapons. It is due to achieve initial operating capability in 2022.