The United States is discharging more than 20 F-22 fighter jets from Hawaii and Alaska to the Western Pacific amid growing tensions with China, said Pacific Air Forces in Hawaii on Monday, July 12. 

Nearly 25 F-22 Raptors will relocate to Guam and Tinian islands in the Northern Mariana Islands of the Philippines for “Operation Pacific Iron 2021” this month. Being the fifth generation of their kind, the Raptors present the most advanced combat jets in the world. 

Many officials knowing of the operation said this is the first time such a significant amount of fighter aircraft are being utilized. 

“We have never had this many Raptors deployed together in the Pacific Air Forces area of operations,” Gen. Ken Wilsbach, Pacific Air Forces commander, said, according to CNN

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Dan “Fig” Leaf said with so many F-22s for the exercise, the U.S. is sending a strong message to China, which has not wavered in its activities in the South China Sea and Taiwan despite international reprimand. 

“I’m not in the Department of Defense anymore, so I have no insight into who’s messaging whom specifically, ” Leaf said, as reported by Anchorage Daily News.

“But what I would say is if I’m China, I’d pay attention to the message—whether it’s intended for them or not—because this is capability both in the aircraft, the F-22, and the flexibility and expeditionary nature of the U.S. Air Force that goes back to World War I, that they (China) can’t duplicate.”

On the other hand, China only has around 20 to 24 operational fifth-generation fighters, but Carl Schuster warned that they might acquire more of them soon. 

A typical F-22 deployment consists of six to twelve aircraft. The U.S. Air Force currently boasts nearly 180 F-22s in its fleet. However, due to maintenance requirements, only about half of them are mission competent at any given time, said CNN. As a result, the “Pacific Iron 2021” task will take roughly 25% of the country’s available mission-ready F-22s.

“This is not just a statement, it’s an investment in capability because it’s not cheap to deploy 25 F-22s from two different bases to the Western Pacific,” Leaf noted.

In an opinion piece from last year, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula and Douglas Birkey, executive director of the Mitchell Institute, wrote that the F-22 would most likely be at the forefront of operations if a confrontation were to happen.

“The F-22 is a fundamentally unique airplane due to the unparalleled integration of stealth, sensor technology, processing power, and unrivaled flight performance,” they explained. “Adversaries respect the aircraft and that is precisely why they are regularly deployed as a signal of resolve.”

Joining the fighter jets in the Western Pacific will also include 10 F-15 Strike Eagle fighters from Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho and two C-130J Hercules transport planes from Yokota Air Base in Japan.

This year’s tensions at the South China Sea have intensified as China, despite a ruling by an independent arbitration tribunal that their territorial claims are unlawful, continued to send their vessels to the reef that the Philippines claim as theirs. 

Responding to the disputes, Secretary of State Antony Blinken on last Sunday declared that the U.S. sides with the ruling and would assist the Philippines in case of a conflict. 

“We also reaffirm that an armed attack on Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the South China Sea would invoke U.S. mutual defense commitments under Article IV of the 1951 US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty,” Blinken said, according to CNN.