Feb. 7—F-22 Fast Facts Wingspan: 44 feet, 6 inches Length: 62 feet, 1 inch Height: 16 feet, 8 inches Speed: Mach 2 class Ceiling: Above 50,000 feet Cost: $143 million All statistics from the United States Air Force.
More than a decade after the final Marietta-made Lockheed Martin F-22 rolled off the assembly lines, the F-22 program notched its first air-to-air "kill" this weekend as it shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon over the South Carolina coast.
The balloon, which was spotted earlier in the week over Montana and Idaho, traversed across the U.S. last week before being hit with a missile off the South Carolina coast Saturday.
A Lockheed spokesperson confirmed the fighter, stationed at Langley Air Force Base, was one of nearly 200 F-22's built at the sprawling Marietta plant.
The F-22 pilot used a single AIM-9X Sidewinder air-to-air missile to bring down the balloon, the Department of Defense said.
As of Monday, the United States had begun to recover parts of the balloon from the Atlantic Ocean.
Chinese officials have taken responsibility for the balloon, but claimed it was a weather-monitoring device, an argument rejected by U.S. military officials. China has criticized the U.S. shooting it down as a "clear overreaction."
"It didn't pose any threat to any person or to the national security of the US," Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning told journalists in Beijing on Tuesday.
Asked whether the balloon uproar had weakened U.S.-China relations, President Joe Biden told reporters Monday, "No. We've made it clear to China what we're going to do. They understand our position. We're not going to back off. We did the right thing. And there's not a question of weakening or strengthening. It's just reality."
A second Chinese balloon has been spotted over Latin America, flying over Colombia, Venezuela, and Costa Rica without incident.
In recent years, Chinese balloons have been spotted over countries across five continents, including in East Asia, South Asia and Europe, a senior U.S. defense official said Saturday. The balloons had been previously spotted near Texas, Florida and Hawaii, as well as the Pacific Ocean island of Guam, where the U.S. has naval and Air Force bases, people familiar with the matter said separately Monday.
Alleged Chinese spy balloons were spotted on several occasions during former President Donald Trump's administration, including three instances where they traveled near sensitive U.S. military facilities and training areas, according to people familiar with the matter.
Though billed as a top-of-the line fighter jet, defense analysts said the balloon takedown was the first time an F-22 was used to destroy an aerial target.
"Shooting down China's balloon was indeed the F-22's first air-to-air kill," Rebecca Grant, an Air Force systems specialist and president of IRIS Independent Research, told Bloomberg News. "Americans watched an unfriendly aircraft get shot down over our skies."
Lockheed first won the F-22 contract in 1991 after a yearslong bidding war, with the next day's MDJ headline declaring, "WE WIN!"
"It was the most exciting thing, as exciting as having a baby," retired Marietta plant head Micky Blackwell, who helmed the F-22 program, told the MDJ in a later interview.
Blackwell, who began working on what was then known as the Advanced Tactical Fighter program as a 43-year-old engineer in 1983, credited the contract with saving Lockheed's aircraft-building business.
"We were not going to be a viable aircraft manufacturer anymore if we didn't win the F-22," Blackwell said. "So it was an all-out effort to win. We got the best program managers in the company together to prepare our design — the best finance people, the best design engineers, the best support people, anyone who had a finger in the pie. It was an absolute must-win for us."
The maiden voyage of the F-22 was in September 1997, when the first Raptor was flown out of Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta by then-51-year-old Marietta resident Paul Metz.
Lockheed built 187 of the aircraft between 1991 and 2011, with the Marietta plant serving as the final assembly point for the plane. In 2005, at peak production, there were 5,600 employees working on the aircraft, 944 of them in Marietta.
The Air Force was originally expected to purchase hundreds of the planes, but orders gradually declined as the U.S. shifted from the Cold War to the War on Terror. The final order was ultimately cut to the figure of 187 aircraft in 2009. The plane was long criticized for its cost and the service's failure to use it, as the Pentagon spent $67 billion to buy 187 of the supersonic jets.
The jet first made its combat debut in 2015, nine years after it was deemed warfare-ready. The stealth fighter known as the Raptor was used primarily to carry out guided air strikes against Islamic State positions in Syria and Iraq.
Bloomberg News contributed to this report.