An F-16 Fighting Falcon from the Colorado Air National Guard arrives at a training base in Jordan as part of the Eager Lion exercise. The Air Force confirmed it is preparing for possible military action against Syria. (Senior Master Sgt John Rohrer / Air National Guard)
While speculation is that Navy warships floating off the coast will lead the expected attack on Syria, the Air Force has a fleet of fighters and bombers deployed nearby and ready if called upon. And Air Force aircraft can reach Syrian targets from the U.S. mainland if need be, just as in the Libyan campaign.
The strike would focus on military targets and forces connected to chemical weapons, and would include Tomahawk missiles launched from sea, according to sources. But the Air Force has confirmed it is tasked with preparing for possible military action against Syria.
“The secretary of Defense has asked us to prepare a range of options, and we have been doing that planning,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh told Air Force Magazine on Aug. 26 in Tokyo.
Military officials have said that strikes could involve ground-based aircraft, such as the Air Force’s fleet of fighters and bombers deployed in southwest Asia, including in Jordan.
“Stand-off air and missile systems could be used to strike hundreds of targets at a tempo of our choosing,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey told Congress in a Julyletter. “Force requirements would include hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines and other enablers.”
The Air Force maintains large bases in the region that are home to air-to-ground strike fighters, tankers, bombers and flying command and control centers.
Airmen and B-1B Lancers from the 9th Bomb Squadron in Julydeployed to one of the bases, and in August trained with the Navy’s 5th Fleet during exercise Spartan Kopis over the Arabian Gulf. The bomber has been active in Afghanistan and Iraq and provided early strikes in the 2011 Libyan campaign.
F-15E Strike Eagles of the 389th Fighter Squadron from Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, have been deployed to southwest Asia since April. F-15Es were active in the Libyan campaign, with one crashing and its crew being safely rescued. Since spring, the Air Force has also deployed stealthy F-22 Raptors nearby.
Earlier this summer, the Air Force sent F-16s from the Colorado Air National Guard’s 140th Fighter Wing to train alongside Jordanian pilots and Marine Corps F/A-18s as part of Exercise Eager Lion. In June, Jordan requested that the Colorado F-16s stay in the country because of the unrest in Syria. However, a Jordanian official this week told Agence France-Presse that the country would not be a “launchpad” for military action against Syria.
The Air Force also has the E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System of the 7th Expeditionary Airborne Command and Control Squadron deployed in southwest Asia. The Joint STARS, a modified Boeing 707-300, is tasked with providing “theater ground and air commanders with ground surveillance to support attack operations and targeting that contributes to the delay, disruption and destruction of enemy forces,” according to the Air Force.
In addition to the deployed air assets and those permanently based in Europe, the Air Force has a track record of flying nonstop from the continental U.S. to strike at targets across the world. During the Libyan campaign, both B-1Bs and B-2 Spirit stealth bombers were sent on long-distance sorties to attack targets instead of being forward deployed.
During the Libya campaign in March 2011, three B-2s from the 509th Bomb Wing, Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., flew 25 hours nonstop from their home base to drop 45 2,000-pound Joint Direct Attack Munitions to destroy military aircraft and facilities at Ghardabiya, Libya.
Also, two B-1B Lancers from Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., left their home base to assist in enforcing the no-fly zone over Libya, returning three days later after hitting almost 100 targets in North Africa.
In a Syrian strike,the type of aircraft used, and the missions that they fly, would dependon the targets if the U.S. decides to use more than just cruise missiles, said Rebecca Grant, a defense analyst with IRIS Independent Research.
“You could use just cruise missiles for part of the regime punishment, if you just want to make a point. ... But if they want to take down key regime targets, that will require heavier aircraft, and I would expect them to use B-2, F-22, other bombers and possibly some carrier-based air,” Grant. said. “F-15Es would be very valuable here with precision weapons and with laser-guided bombs and of course F-16s for destruction of enemy air defenses.”
In addition to the U.S. forces in the area, international partners can include British forces based in Cyprus, along with Italian forces and other NATO members in the region, Grant said.
“If you have an international coalition and you include the British, the Italians, really you want NATO altogether, then you’ve got some good basic possibilities — Turkey, obviously would be useful as well,” Grant said. “Then any time you’re talking about using aircraft, you want to have the things that they need: refueling and combat search and rescue backup. So you have to base those as well.”
While initial reports show the U.S. is moving toward a punitive military action, there has been no focus on a follow-through or plan after the initial attack and what would be needed moving forward, said Anthony Cordesman, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. And if the U.S. does commit additional assets to the region, there are more implications to consider.
“If you have assets like the F-22 or B-2, you have to be very, very careful of implications of any loss,” Cordesman said.
The possible loss of assets concerns administration and military officials who have expressed reluctance aboutthe possibility of enforcing a no-fly zone over Syria while some congressional leaders are pushing for it. A no-fly zone would extend air superiority over Syria by shooting down aircraftin violation of no-fly zoneand striking airfields, much like the activity in Libya, Demspey said in his letter to Congress. Its cost would average as much as $1 billion per month.
“Impacts would likely include the near total elimination of the regime’s ability to bomb opposition strongholds and sustain its forces by air,” Dempsey wrote. “Risks include the loss of U.S. aircraft, which would require us to insert personnel recovery forces. It may also fail to reduce the violence or shift the momentum because the regime relies overwhelmingly on surface fires.”