Tensions are at a critical level in the Middle East following a US drone strike – authorised by US President Donald Trump – that killed General Qasem Soleimani of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), sparking a major escalation of the long-running stand-off between the two countries.
The air strike took place near Baghdad International Airport in Iraq on January 3. The attack came in the wake of an attack on the US Embassy in the Iraqi capital on New Year’s Eve. The US claims that the two-day attack on the embassy by protestors was led by Iran-backed militias.
General Qasem Soleimani (62) commanded Iranian military operations in the Middle East and was head of the Quds Force – a special operations unit within the IRGC, which is responsible for ‘extraterritorial operations’.
In a statement, the Pentagon said: “General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.”
“He had orchestrated attacks on coalition bases in Iraq over the last several months – including the attack on December 27 – culminating in the death and wounding of additional American and Iraqi personnel. General Soleimani also approved the attacks on the US Embassy in Baghdad that took place this week,” it added.
In response to the attack, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, declared three days of public mourning during a televised statement. He warned of “harsh retaliation” towards the US and said: “All enemies should know that the jihad of resistance will continue with doubled motivation and a definite victory awaits the fighters in the holy war.”
Iranian defence minister Amir Hatami – another top commander within the IRGC’s Quds Force – said: “A crushing revenge will be taken for Soleimani's unjust assassination... We will take revenge from all those involved and responsible for his assassination.”
It has been reported by Reuters that several Iraqi officials were also killed in the air strike. The Iraqi government will hold an emergency parliament session on January 4 to discuss what Iraqi Prime Minister, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, calls a “violation” of the conditions of continuing US military presence in the country.
Governments of the world have called for calm and de-escalation between Washington and Tehran. In a statement, British Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, said: “We have always recognised the aggressive threat posed by the Iranian Quds force led by Qasem Soleimani. Following his death, we urge all parties to de-escalate. Further conflict is in none of our interests.”
Tensions have been escalating since the latter half of 2019, when an Iranian surface-to-air missile engaged and shot down a US Navy RQ-4A Global Hawk over the Strait of Hormuz – an incident which almost triggered an armed response from the US. The escalation has taken many forms – from oil tanker seizures to drone attacks on oil refineries in Saudi Arabia. On December 29, a rocket attack on a base near Kirkuk, Iraq, resulted in the death of a US contractor and injuries to four US service members, along with Iraqi Security Forces personnel. In retaliation, US fighter aircraft attacked five facilities in Iraq and Syria belonging to Iran-backed militia group Kata-ib Hezbollah, which killed 25 and injured more than 50 group members and senior officials.
US military presence in the Middle East has been prominent for decades, with an increase from mid-2014 due to operations to support the coalition fight against so-called Islamic State across Iraq and Syria.
In 2019, the US further increased its forces in the region, deploying F-15Cs, additional F-15Es and F-22 Raptors. However, since the US Embassy attack on December 31, the US has started deploying further troops and aircraft to region.
Increasing force levels
The standoff with Tehran led to increasing levels of aircraft being deployed to the Central Command (CENTCOM) area of responsibility (AOR) from mid-2019. Despite a reduction in the mission tackling IS, and the destruction of the so-called Caliphate, the first combat deployment of USAF Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning IIs got under way in April 2018 as a dozen fighters arrived in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
The F-35As that deployed in April 2018 were the first USAF fifth-generation fighters in the CENTCOM region since the F-22 Raptors exited the area in 2018, with the F-35s flying daily combat air patrols (CAPs) in the Iraq/Syria area supported by refuelling tankers, E-3 Airborne Warning And Control System (AWACS) and by ‘Kingpin’ — the Control Reporting Center (CRC) at Al Dhafra.
According to a CENTCOM news release, the F-35’s first kinetic action came on April 30 by what it called an ‘air interdiction during its inaugural deployment to the US Air Forces Central Command’s area of responsibility.’ A further release added: ‘Two USAF F-35A Lightning II aircraft conducted an air strike at Wadi Ashai, Iraq, in support of Combined Joint Task Force — Operation ‘Inherent Resolve’ on April 30. This strike marked the F-35A’s first combat employment.’
The two F-35s used GBU-31 Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs) to hit a tunnel network used by so-called Islamic State (IS) and a weapons cache in the Hamrin Mountains near Baiji in Iraq.
In terms of air-to-ground weapons, the F-35A offered some advantages over the F-22A, which was limited to delivering GPS-guided GBU-31 Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs) and GBU-39 Small Diameter Bombs (SDBs). The Lightning II, in contrast, adds laser-guided weaponry to its ordnance options, and with its on-board Electro-Optical Targeting System (EOTS) can guide Paveway laser-guided bombs onto moving targets. The 2,000lb (907kg) GBU-31 is also in the F-35’s arsenal. In the air-to-air arena, the F-35A carries the same AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAM) and AIM-9X Sidewinders for short-range engagements, although the latter must be carried externally on the Lightning II.
Few further official details of the deployment emerged, although, over the past year or so, Operation ‘Inherent Resolve’ has evolved from being a campaign to roll back territory held by IS in Iraq and Syria to what is now an intelligence-driven targeting mission, with fighters providing top cover for coalition troops. As a result, kinetic strikes have dramatically reduced. However, the USAF has seen its mission shift towards one of deterrence towards Iran as tensions between the two nations increased in the latter half of 2019.
The USAF has been keen to stress the benefits the F-35A brings to bear in the region. In a press release it described how the jet’s ‘powerful and comprehensive integrated sensor package’ would be able to ‘fuse, integrate and share data with other battlefield assets’. USAF Chief of Staff Gen David Goldfein elaborated: ‘The F-35A provides our nation air dominance in any threat. When it comes to having a ‘quarterback’ for the coalition joint force, the interoperable F-35A is clearly the aircraft for the leadership role.’
Underscoring the importance of the F-35 in CENTCOM, as the debut deployment headed for home in late October, the returning aircraft were almost immediately replaced by a new contingent of 18 jets from Hill’s 34th Fighter Squadron (FS) ‘Rude Rams’ and 421st FS ‘Black Widows’, which arrived at Al Dhafra via Morón Air Base in southern Spain on November 16.
In addition, the USAF has positioned a second F-15E detachment in CENTCOM. As well as the enduring detachment at an ‘undisclosed location’ in the region that is currently manned by the 389th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron (EFS), the 494th EFS is also now operating from Al Dhafra air base, UAE.
In addition, AirForces Monthly and Combat Aircraft Journal have reported that F-22s of the 94th EFS, and F-16Cs from the 555th EFS are also currently deployed to the region.
US Force Mobilisation (as of January 3)
In the wake of the New Year’s Eve embassy attack and the drone strike on January 3, more assets appear to be heading for the region.
As part of an Immediate Response Force, roughly 750 paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division departed Fort Bragg, North Carolina, heading for Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait via USAF Boeing C-17A Globemaster IIIs. The US Department of Defense (DoD) adds that more forces could deploy over the next several days.
In addition to troop deployments, numerous C-17As and Lockheed C-5M Galaxy strategic transports have been making the trip, suggesting that further personnel and equipment, such as Patriot surface-to-air missile batteries and helicopters could have been transported across in case of further escalation or military conflict between the two nations. Since the New Year, more than 20 Globemasters appear to have flown to the region. On January 3, upwards of five C-5Ms were heading towards the Middle East over the Mediterranean Sea.
At least four Boeing KC-135R Stratotankers from the 351st Aerial Refuelling Squadron departed RAF Mildenhall, Suffolk, UK, early on January 3, heading south towards the region. The flight arrived at Aviano Air Base in Italy. A pair of McDonnell Douglas KC-10A Extenders have also made their way across the Mediterranean Sea, supporting the deployment of 12 United States Marine Corps (USMC) Boeing F/A-18C/D Hornets from Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 251 (VMFA-251) ‘Thunderbolts’, which departed Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Beaufort on January 1 as part of the US’ Immediate Response Force. The aircraft are set to operate from Ahmad al-Jaber Air Base in Kuwait.
Four USAF Special Operations Command (AFSOC) CV-22Bs from Mildenhall-based 7th Special Operations Squadron (SOS) ‘Aircommandos’ were also noted to have deployed to the Middle East under the callsign ‘Samba’. Three Lockheed Martin MC-130J Commando IIs from 352nd SOS have departed RAF Mildenhall for the region. A pair of Lockheed MC-130H Combat Talon IIs have also been deployed, heading to the region from Hurlburt Field, Florida, alongside a Lockheed AC-130W Stinger II gunship which is slated to be operating from Jordan.
Despite the mass in ‘heavy’ asset transportation, USAF Europe (USAFE) have fighter assets based not far from the region which can be deployed at short notice. RAF Lakenheath, Suffolk, UK, is home to the 48th Fighter Wing, operating Boeing F-15C/D Eagles and Boeing F-15E Strike Eagles. Both Aviano Air Base, Italy, and Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, are home to USAF Lockheed Martin F-16C/D Fighting Falcon multirole fighters.
Both sides are reportedly conducting Combat Air Patrol (CAP) operations with the Iranian Air Force patrolling its border with Iraq using US-built Grumman F-14A Tomcats multirole variable-geometry fighters from the air arm’s 8th Tactical Fighter Base. Iranian military establishments have also reportedly been placed on lockdown and social media sources suggest that only CAP flights are permitted, with the nation on high alert. The USAF is also conducting CAP sorties, with Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptors, F-35A Lightning IIs and F-15Cs reportedly airborne from US air bases in the region.