Arab Air Forces Switch Focus from Syria to Yemen

 - November 11, 2015, 12:59 PM
This US Air Force B-1B bomber took time out from Operation Inherent Resolve over Iraq and Syria, to do a flyby at the Dubai Air Show. It flew from Al Udeid airbase in Qatar

Arab air forces that were participating in the U.S.-led air campaign against ISIS forces over Iraq and Syria have almost entirely switched their combat jets to the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen. The U.S. continues to provide limited assistance to that effort, which began in March. Meanwhile the U.S. is spending $10 million each day on Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), which cannot succeed in defeating ISIL without the intervention of trained local ground forces, U.S. officials acknowledge.  

In response to growing concern about lack of progress in OIR, reporters from CBS News and the New York Times were given access to the Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) at Al Udeid airbase, Qatar late last month. They reported that up to 160 aircraft from the coalition are airborne each day, but the U.S. is flying 95 percent of the missions over Syria and 70 percent of those over Iraq. Bahrain has not participated in OIR since February, nor the United Arab Emirates since March, Jordan since August, and Saudi Arabia since September. Their combat jets were flying mostly over Syria. Belgium and Denmark have also withdrawn their F-16s, at least temporarily, and the new Canadian government might withdraw its six CF-18s and two CP-140 patrol aircraft. 

The British government said it would not seek support from parliament, to extend strike operations by eight Tornado jets based at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus, from Iraq to Syria. Nevertheless, CENTCOM air commander Lt. Gen. Charles Brown expressed satisfaction about the level of allied support for OIR. The French are deploying their aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle to support the operation for a second time, adding to their existing contribution from nine Rafales and six Mirage 2000s based at Al Dhafra in the UAE. It partially replaces the USS Theodore Roosevelt, which was providing 10 percent of all OIR fast jet missions until it left the Gulf in early October. The U.S. Navy is not able to send a replacement carrier until mid-December.

With many coalition aircraft based a long way from Syria in Qatar and the UAE, the operation has required substantial air refueling support, with up to 200 contacts each day. That problem has now been eased by Turkey’s belated agreement to allow the use of its air bases. Having initially deployed six F-16s and some ReaperUAVs to Incirlik, and combat search and rescue assets to Diyarbakir, the U.S. has now replaced the F-16s by moving a dozen A-10s from Kuwait, with six F-15Es to arrive shortly. From Turkey, they will be able to respond more quickly to emerging targets over Syria. These targets are mostly being identified by "persistent ISR" provided by MQ-1/9 Predator/Reaper UAV orbits. U.S. officials claim that the ratio of airstrikes to total combat missions flown has improved from one-quarter to two-thirds. 

The U.S. has also sent six F-15Cs to Incirlik, but these air superiority fighters are not helping to establish a no-fly zone over parts of Syria, as some strategists suggested. Rather, they were sent to defend Turkish airspace, at Ankara’s request. U.S. spokesmen have not specified the perceived threat, which must therefore be from the Russian aircraft that were deployed to Syria in late September. Those aircraft have now flown more than 1,600 combat missions over Syria, according to Russian President Putin. U.S. officials revealed that the coordination with the Russian air forces includes a common airborne frequency, as well as pre-arranged deconfliction that is negotiated on the ground between the coalition CAOC and the Russian equivalent.

At the Dubai Air Show this week, Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James told reporters: “We’re making progress…but it is going to take years. We have collectively pushed back ISIS in terms of the territory that they’ve occupied; we have hit them in terms of command and control centers, and training sites; we’ve hit equipment storage areas. Thousands of fighters have been taken out, including key leaders, and we’ve also been attacking their sources of revenue.”

At the same media event in Dubai, Lt. Gen. Brown said that the Saudi-led coalition is “doing good work” in Yemen. The struggle there between Houthi rebels supported by Iran and the internationally recognized government has ebbed and flowed, with no conclusive outcome despite the Arab intervention, which has included ground forces. The operation has been renamed from “Decisive Storm” to “Restoring Hope.” After some initial media briefings, the Arab coalition has not offered progress reports, nor responded to substantial allegations about civilian casualties from airstrikes. Brown said that the U.S. is sharing intelligence and providing air-to-air refueling tankers plus “some ISR” to the Arab coalition. The U.S. has deployed “less than 10” personnel to the air operations center in Riyadh, he revealed.