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An F-15C Eagle lines up beside an F-22A Raptor at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2022.

An F-15C Eagle lines up beside an F-22A Raptor at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2022. (Frank Andrews/Stars and Stripes)

KADENA AIR BASE, Okinawa – The 18th Wing mobilized and launched more than three dozen aircraft Tuesday, its first large-scale show of force since rotational F-22 Raptors arrived to replace the base’s aging fleet of F-15s.

The “routine readiness exercise” saw 23 F-15C Eagles, eight F-22A Raptors, a trio of HH-60 Pave Hawks, a KC-135 Stratotanker, reconnaissance and command-and-control aircraft taxi simultaneously before taking off.

The succession of launches was designed to test Kadena’s “ability to generate airpower quickly" to defend Japan and promote "regional peace and security,” the 18th Wing said in a Monday statement announcing the drill.

The demonstration came on the heels of criticism from some defense experts and a group of U.S. lawmakers who railed against replacing permanently based fighters with a rotational set.

“Anytime we're showcasing our air power, part of that is about reassuring our allies that we’re capable and we're credible,” 18th Wing spokesman Lt. Col. Raymond Geoffroy told Stars and Stripes as the aircraft assembled on the runway. He said Tuesday’s exercise “definitely” took on added significance due to the transition from Eagles to Raptors and having both aircraft on hand.

A “routine readiness exercise” at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, included 23 F-15C Eagles, eight F-22A Raptors, a trio of HH-60 Pave Hawks, a KC-135 Stratotanker, reconnaissance and command-and-control aircraft, Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2022.

A “routine readiness exercise” at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, included 23 F-15C Eagles, eight F-22A Raptors, a trio of HH-60 Pave Hawks, a KC-135 Stratotanker, reconnaissance and command-and-control aircraft, Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2022. (Frank Andrews/Stars and Stripes)

An F-22A Raptor taxis to the runway at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2022.

An F-22A Raptor taxis to the runway at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2022. (Frank Andrews/Stars and Stripes)

There are approximately 50 F-15s still on Okinawa, Geoffroy said. He put the number of Raptors at about a dozen. A spokesman from the Okinawa Defense Bureau, which represents Japan’s Ministry of Defense on the island, speaking to Stars and Stripes by phone Tuesday, said there are 14.

Some government officials in Japan speak to the media on the condition of anonymity as a requirement of their employment.

The plan to replace Kadena’s two F-15C/D squadrons caused a stir when it was leaked to the press in the Financial Times on Oct. 27.

The "phased withdrawal" will take place over the next two years. The Eagles – at least initially – are being replaced by F-22 fifth-generation stealth fighters on six-month rotational deployments.

F-15C Eagles take part in an airpower exercise at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2022.

F-15C Eagles take part in an airpower exercise at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2022. (Frank Andrews/Stars and Stripes)

An F-22A Raptor taxis to the runway at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2022.

An F-22A Raptor taxis to the runway at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2022. (Frank Andrews/Stars and Stripes)

The first of these aircraft arrived Nov. 4 from the 3rd Wing at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska. There will be no gaps in fighter coverage, according to the 18th Wing.

It's unclear if the rotational presence will be temporary or an interim measure until a new generation of fighters is positioned permanently on Okinawa, Ralph Cossa, president emeritus of the Pacific Forum think tank in Hawaii, told Stars and Stripes in an email Oct. 28.

Critics have said the move sends the wrong message to China and to U.S. allies in the region.

Prominent Republican lawmakers Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida; Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, the top Republican on the Armed Services personnel subcommittee; Sen. Bill Hagerty of Tennessee, the former ambassador to Japan; and Rep. Mike McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote a letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on Nov. 1 criticizing the move.

The group agrees with modernization but is concerned there will be a "tangible reduction in American forward combat power" with no permanent fighter presence, the letter said.

Stars and Stripes reporter Keishi Koja contributed to this report.

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Matthew M. Burke has been reporting from Okinawa for Stars and Stripes since 2014. The Massachusetts native and UMass Amherst alumnus previously covered Sasebo Naval Base and Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, for the newspaper. His work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, Cape Cod Times and other publications.
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Frank Andrews is a reporter at Camp Foster, Okinawa. He’s an alumnus of the Defense Information School and University of Maryland University College. His previous Navy assignments have taken him to Iraq, Bahrain, Diego Garcia, Japan, South Korea and Naval Special Warfare Command in California.

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