Nearly three years after the U.S. military withdrew from Iraq, Navy F/A-18 Hornets and Air Force F-15s, F-16s and unmanned MQ-1 Predators returned to the sky over the country this past week to stem the advance of Islamic extremists and support humanitarian airdrops. More than 60 intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft engaged in the effort, according to the Department of Defense.
Air strikes targeting militants with the so-called Islamic State and humanitarian airdrops to relieve refugees trapped in the Sinjar Mountains in northwestern Iraq started on August 7, the Pentagon said. Two U.S. Navy F/A-18C Hornets operating from the USS George H.W. Bush conducted the first reported air strike, dropping 500-pound laser-guided bombs on a mobile artillery piece the militants were using to attack Kurdish forces near Irbil, the regional capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.
U.S. Air Force C-17 and C-130 airlifters operating from bases within the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility dropped food, water and medical supplies to the trapped refugees, members of the Yazidi religious minority. British Royal Air Force C-130 Hercules transports started air drops over Mount Sinjar on August 9, delivering water, reusable water containers, solar lanterns and shelter kits. The UK Ministry of Defense said it sent “a small number” of aircraft to RAF Akrotiri on Cyprus to support the airlifts and provide intelligence, including Tornado GR4s fitted with Litening III targeting and surveillance pods.
Later in the week, the Pentagon said that an assessment team of U.S. soldiers and personnel from the U.S. Agency for International Development consisting of “fewer than 20” people had been flown onto Mount Sinjar and determined that an evacuation of remaining Yazidi refugees there was probably not needed. In an afternoon briefing on August 14, Rear Adm. John Kirby, Pentagon press secretary, said the U.S. had conducted 25 air strikes to date, half targeting Islamic State militants around Irbil and half targeting militants around Mount Sinjar.