The fight against the Islamic State group is down one key ally for now: the United Arab Emirates.
Officials said Tuesday that the UAE suspended its airstrike efforts in December after Jordanian fighter pilot Lt. Moaz al-Kasasbeh was captured by IS militants, according to the New York Times.
Jordan executed two prisoners on Wednesday hours after a video surfaced showing ISIS militants burning Kasabeh alive in a cage.
But before pilots start worrying about allied pilots leaving the fight, the U.S. needs to lay the groundwork for a more direct plan to defeat the threat, said retired Air Force Lt. Col. Scott Lysford.
"We need to have a very dedicated and coherent strategy and worry about our coalition partners after that," said Lysford, who flew F-16s for more than 10 years in the Middle East.
"Certainly our hearts go out to that Jordanian pilot as being a brother in arms, but if you think that any of our fighter pilots who watched what happened to the Jordanian pilot are concerned about ISIS doing that to us, there's a zero chance that that's an issue," he said.
"This is the inherent risk that each young man or woman accepts when they volunteer to serve their country," said retired Air Force Lt. Col. Daren Sorenson. "This act by ISIS will only strengthen their resolve to fly, fight and win this vital war against extremism and they will do everything in their power to support our coalition's strategy objectives," the former F-15E fighter pilot said.
Talking on behalf of the "fraternity of pilots" in the U.S., Lysford said U.S. pilots are better equipped when it comes to flying combat missions. While it doesn't help when coalition partners back out, he said, in reality, the influence remains at the helm of the U.S.
But others disagree.
UAE — one of four Arab nations participating in the coalition bombings since September — had some of the best assets and skill sets in the field, said a former Air Force commander and pilot who served numerous times in UAE.
"They were the first to have the F-16 Block 60, which was far and away more advanced than anything the U.S. had at the time on the F-16 side," said the commander, speaking on background. UAE's Block 60s — acquired in 2007 — gave pilots improved radar capabilities that could in tandem track and destroy both land and air targets.
"[These pilots] were probably predominant in the Middle East," the commander said.
Around the same time, UAE upgraded dozens of its Mirage 2000-9 fighter jets, enhancing their role in the sky.
The commander said the Gulf Air Warfare Center, a facility at Al Dhafra Air Base established in early 2000, also gave UAE pilots the advanced training they needed to work with U.S. pilots in Red Flag-type exercises.
"In terms of individual competence and as an air force, they were probably far more integrated with coalitions," he said.
With Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain still in the fight, UAE said it would rejoin coalition efforts if the Pentagon improves its search and rescue efforts, the New York Times said. This includes stationing V-22 Osprey aircraft closer to the battlegrounds in northern Iraq, instead of basing the missions in Kuwait.
U.S. Central Command said in an email to Military Times that it had no further information concerning UAE's future decisions.
Citing an unidentified U.S. official, CNN reported Wednesday evening that search-and-rescue assets have already been moved into northern Iraq as part of a "constant rebalancing," not necessarily in response to the UAE's concerns.
"I didn't see that coming," the commander said of UAE's decision to suspend airstrikes.
"These are complex decisions and must be weighed carefully and deliberately by each nation," Sorenson said. "We must respect their decision to make that determination and support the needs of the coalition partners to the maximum feasible level possible."
UAE was one of the first Arab states to sign up to thwart the Islamic State's advancement, and even had F-16 pilot Maj. Mariam al-Mansouri, UAE's first female pilot, conduct airstrikes in September.
"Out of the seven emirates, two are very progressive — but they're all willing to be kind of out there in terms of progressive human rights issues," the commander said.
UAE Ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba, who confirmed al-Mansouri's role in the fight, at the time said it is important that moderate Arab and Muslim nations take a stand against the Islamic State militants, describing the group as "a threat to our way of life."
"We will bring whatever is necessary to defeat ISIS," Otaiba said.