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​A 380th Air Expeditionary Wing F-22 Raptor prepares to launch a sortie in support of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia, Dec. 14, 2016. Air Force photo by SrA. Tyler Woodward.

—Brian Everstine

Southwest Asia—The US military’s most advanced air superiority fighter has been at war for almost three years now, flying over Syria and that country’s Air Force and Russian-made air defense systems.

And for basically all of those combat sorties, it has only been seen when it wants to.

“We’re not invisible. We are often times unobserved,” said the commander of the 27th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, who goes by the call sign “Shell.” (The Air Force does not release the full name of pilots flying down range for security reasons.) “… If they know we’re there, most of the time it’s because we allowed them to know we’re there.”

This plays out in situations such as last August, when two Syrian Air Force Su-24s flew close to US special operations troops near the city of Hasaka. US F-22s responded, flying within a mile of the Syrian aircraft and “encouraged” them to leave, the Pentagon said at the time.

F-22s, stationed at an undisclosed base here, are flying daily missions to support the US-led fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The F-22’s pace has increased steadily since the operation kicked off in August 2014, and are now flying at their “full capacity,” Shell said. The F-22s do not train in the area, and are operating solely in support of Operation Inherent Resolve.

The aircraft is a “quarterback” in the fight, former Air Combat Command chief Gen. Hawk Carlisle said in 2015, adding that he wouldn’t send a strike package into Syria without a Raptor escort.

While the Raptor relies on command and control assets in the fight, such as USAF E-3 Sentry AWACS or the Royal Australian Air Force E-7 Wedgetail, the jet uses its “sensor fusion” to fine tune the strike package. The Raptors unique sensor package helps de-conflict multiple assets, including tracking non-coalition aircraft and urging them to move along. The F-22’s sensors are packaged into one screen with a “fused” picture, whereas other aircraft such as F-15Es have individual displays for each set of information. This helps the Raptor pilot get a better understanding of the situation.

“The pilot can put it together, and make a mental 3D picture,” Shell said. “We have more information at our fingertips than other aircraft. We have an easier time making big decisions.”

F-22 pilots are regularly the mission commander, directing other aircraft such as F-15Es and B-52s when to attack and where, Shell said.

Raptors have encountered Russian aircraft in the theater, and have at times had to reach out using an internationally used military distress radio frequency to de-conflict, Shell said. Every time the Russian pilots have been “professional.”

Because the F-22’s main mission is air superiority, pilots have to train up on other mission sets, such as close air support, before they deploy to support Inherent Resolve. Pilots usually train for air superiority, and then hand the close air support mission over to aircraft such as A-10s and F-15Es. In this battle, “ISIS doesn’t have an air force” so the F-22 is providing two of the Air Force’s core missions, air superiority and precision strike.

When the 27th Fighter Squadron deployed from its home base at JB Langley-Eustis, Va., for this mission, just two pilots had combat experience, Shell said. They would “train and train and train” but actually going into combat, flying long distances with multiple refueling, and sometimes being airborne for 10 hours, helps to “tie them to their work a little more.” Now, the squadron is “getting to execute the mission, real world, in combat, against the nation’s enemies,” Shell said. It increases everyone’s pride—not just for the pilots, but also for maintainers and support personnel. Being a part of the coalition “gives everybody a sense they are contributing,” he said.