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The significant scale of US and Gulf state airstrikes against ISIS strongholds in Syria brings together a combat coalition of Gulf states alongside the US which was first glimpsed in 2011 with limited Emirati and Qatari air force participation over Libya. It also represents a dramatic change in the power projection dynamics of the region and the introduction to combat of America’s most capable fighter jet.
Gulf State Participation
The air forces of Gulf states are well suited to cooperate within a US-led coalition since they are all equipped with Western combat aircraft and weaponry. Coordination with their American counterparts will have been made substantially easier by the fact that most Gulf state air force aircrew have been trained by, and alongside, American and British pilots with extensive combat experience in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. This experience has been bolstered by US-led multilateral military exercises involving Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain in recent years.
Jordan, Bahrain and the UAE all operate the F-16 Fighting Falcon, a multi-role fighter which also forms the backbone of the US Air Force strike fighter fleet. The UAE also operates French built Mirage 2000 aircraft which have broadly similar capabilities. The Royal Saudi Air Force is the most potent Arab strike force in the Gulf. It operates a large fleet of American built F-15s in air superiority and strike variants, as well as the European Tornado strike bomber and multi-role Typhoon – a formidable air superiority and strike aircraft. All these fleets carry a similar mix of Western made precision guided munitions such as GPS and laser-guided bombs and anti-tank missiles.
In capability terms, the Gulf air forces are limited not by their aircraft or munitions but by their pilots’ lack of combat experience, especially as part of coordinated strike operations. Over Syria, it is highly likely that the majority of target designation and selection was performed by US aircraft and personnel, with participating Arab air forces adding their strike weight within that framework.
The Gulf states’ mutual reliance on Western military hardware and training programmes to equip their air forces has resulted in significant interoperability in operational terms. This could prove highly significant if the sort of mutual power projection which was displayed over Syria becomes a more commonplace occurrence in the Middle East as a whole in coming years. The UAE’s unexpected strike action against Islamist militias in Libya last month showcased the emerging trend of Gulf states moving towards a greater willingness to use their Western-model combat air power for external interventions. This stems from Europe and the United States’ attempt to disengage from the region after more than a decade of intensive operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and encouraged by the West as a whole.
The US Strategy, F-22’s Combat Debut and the Syrian Air Defence Network
The scale and systematic nature of the US cruise missile and bombing operations in Syria suggest that a great deal of pre-planning and reconnaissance has taken place. This is at odds with the popular conception in recent months that the Obama administration lacked a concrete strategy to combat ISIS. Whilst these airstrikes will not defeat ISIS, they are a potent reminder that in firepower terms the US military is capable of inflicting significant damage against dispersed strongpoints over long distances and in unfriendly and potentially denied airspace.
ISIS cannot be defeated by airpower alone, but one of the significant advantages it holds over Kurdish Peshmerga forces in particular is its stocks of modern heavy weaponry and armour, captured from Iraqi and Syrian forces. These can be effectively degraded by precision airstrikes, especially when coordinated with the benefit of US intelligence and surveillance capabilities in the region. Concentrations of ISIS hardware and resources may also have been less well concealed in Syria than in Iraq due to the perceived US reluctance up until this point to strike targets in the country.
The Syrian air defence network is still dangerous despite the long running conflict that has laid waste to much of the country. This was one of the main considerations surrounding the Western deliberations over whether to strike Assad’s chemical weapons capabilities last year. The fact that the stealthy F-22 Raptor has apparently been used to spearhead the strikes on Monday night is a potential indication of how seriously the US takes the Syrian air defence network.
These aircraft have not been committed to combat operations before, despite having been in USAF service since 2005. Their use over Syria is an indication that some strikeareas, particularly Al Nusra targets in the Aleppo region were considered too well defended and politically sensitive for more conventional aircraft to attack within Syria. It is also a symbolic warning to the Syrian regime not to interfere with the strikes, by demonstrating the capability of USAF assets in the region to penetrate Syrian air defences at will. On a more basic level, it is worth remembering that US strike assets in the region are significantly less numerous than in previous years. There may simply have been a requirement to use F-22s that were available to increase the total strike weight.
Using the F-22 in Syrian airspace is not without cost since operating the stealth fighter over a sophisticated air defence network known to be bolstered by Russian military specialists risks revealing details about the F-22’s radar signature and capabilities. Russian specialists will be hard at work analysing data from Syrian radar networks on Monday night to determine if and where F-22 sorties were tracked, and where their stealth features allowed them to evade detection. However, it is also a powerful covert message to Russia at a time of greatly increased tensions in Eastern Europe, reminding the Kremlin that the USAF is capable of penetrating modern Russian air defence networks, even when operated and maintained with the assistance of Russian specialists.
Within the chaos, a potential wild card is Israel. An Israeli patriot missile battery shot down a Syrian Air Force Mig-21 fighter during the coalition operation. This is likely to be a warning to all parties, especially the Arab nations involved, that Israeli airspace is closed and actively defended. By shooting down a Syrian intruder on the border, Israel may well be hoping to send a signal to any Gulf state aircraft tempted to use the ISIS strikes as a cover to probe Israeli airspace that it is not worth the risk.
Justin Bronk is a Research Analyst at RUSI