WASHINGTON — The Air Force has begun sending fighter jets to Kadena Air Base in Japan to take the place of aging F-15s headed for retirement.

F-22A Raptors from the 3rd Wing at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska arrived at Kadena on Nov. 4, Pacific Air Forces said in a release.

Kadena is preparing to fly its two squadrons of aging F-15C and D Eagle fighters back to the United States, where they will be retired.

The Air Force announced last month that it would retire the 18th Wing’s F-15s in phases over the next two years. As the F-15s depart and are retired, the Air Force plans to rotate newer, more advanced fourth- and fifth-generation fighters into Kadena to fill their roles.

At least for now, the rotations will be temporary. The Defense Department is still trying to decide on a longer-term plan for maintaining a fighter presence at Kadena, and whether to eventually station fighters there permanently once again. The plans being considered include all fighters with capabilities beyond that of the F-15C and D, including the F-15EX and the F-35A.

The newly-arrived F-22s will work with units and aircraft already based at Kadena to maintain “steady-state fighter capabilities” and keep the U.S. ready to defend Japan, PACAF said. It was not immediately clear how many F-22s had been deployed to Kadena.

But the decision to withdraw the 18th Wing’s 48 F-15s and spare fighters without a permanent replacement has proven controversial. Four key Republican lawmakers last week sent a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin expressing concern about the Air Force’s plans, and asking for more information on how the Pentagon planned to replace the fighters’ deterrent value and combat capability.

“We are concerned that [the Defense Department’s] decision sends the wrong signal, not only to the [Chinese Communist Party], but also to our allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific,” Sens. Marco Rubio, of Florida, and Bill Hagerty, of Tennessee, as well as Reps. Mike Gallagher, of Wisconsin, and Mike McCaul, of Texas, wrote in the Nov. 1 letter.

Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.

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