The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) came to prominence with its declaration of a worldwide caliphate in June 2014. Soon after, it occupied significant tracts of land in Iraq and Syria while performing acts of political violence beyond the Middle East.

By the end of summer 2014, with the Iraqi capital Baghdad seemingly under threat from ISIS, a NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) conference saw an international coalition formed “to degrade and, ultimately, destroy the threat posed by ISIL.” To perform this mission, the Combined Joint Task Force–Operation INHERENT RESOLVE (OIR) was formed under the command of the United States Central Command (CENTCOM), headquartered in Tampa, Florida. CENTCOM is a joint US military command responsible for military operations in Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. The Combined Air Operations Centre or ‘CAOC’ where the air component of OIR is planned and executed is located at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, where US personnel, together with personnel from OIR contributing nations (see below) are located. OIR aims to work with regional, Middle Eastern powers to bring about the military defeat of ISIS; the mission involves a significant use of air power from coalition nations, although maritime and special forces ground assets also play their role.

Lockheed Martin F-16C
In August 2015 six Lockheed Martin F-16C Fighting Falcons from the US Air Force’s 31st Fighter Wing arrived at Incirlik airbase. The deployment came in the wake of Turkey’s decision to host US aircraft. (US DoD)

Countries that have participated in air strikes against ISIS in Iraq comprise Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Jordan, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. In Syria, meanwhile, Australia, Bahrain, Canada, France, Jordan, the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the UK have all flown air strikes. As of 5 April 2016 the air arms of the US-led coalition had conducted a total of 11398 strikes (of which 7683 had taken place in Iraq and 3715 in Syria). 

Rafale-F3B/C fighters
Among the first anti-ISIS missions conducted by France were intelligence-gathering flights carried out over Iraq by Rafale-F3B/C fighters flying from Al Dhafra airbase. (French Ministry of Defence)

Local Partners

Several regional Middle Eastern powers have provided support to OIR. The smallest actor has been the Royal Bahrain Air Force (RBAF), which committed three General Dynamics/Lockheed Martin F-16C/D Fighting Falcon fighters, which flew missions from Isa airbase in Bahrain. According to reports in the Western media, the RBAF ceased operations over Syria in November 2014, after just a single day of sorties.

Bahrain’s single day of sorties has been eclipsed by the Royal Jordanian Air Force’s (RJAF) contribution to OIR which has been provided by its force of F-16A/B and upgraded F-16AM/BM fighters based at Muwaffaq Salti airbase, eastern Jordan. Jordan suspended missions over Syria after an RJAF pilot was shot down and captured at the end of December 2014 before being executed by ISIS cadres; nevertheless, RJAF missions continued to be flown against ISIS insurgents in Iraq.

Sukhoi Su-25SM
A Russian Air Force Sukhoi Su-25SM ground-attack aircraft taxis past a fully armed Sukhoi Su-34 strike aircraft at Hmeimin airbase in Latakia province, from where Russia has launched the majority of its air strikes against Syrian insurgents. (Russian MoD)

Representing an unknown quantity within the coalition are the four Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) Boeing F-15S Eagle fighters that deployed to Incirlik airbase, southern Turkey on 26 February 2016. According to Turkish officials, the RSAF Eagles are intended to conduct operations over Syria. At the time of writing there was no evidence that such missions had commenced from Turkish soil. However, Saudi Arabia did fly air strikes over Syria during the first wave of coalition attacks on 22/23 September 2014. Another unknown quantity is Turkey. While the country is a member of the OIR coalition, it initially closed its airspace to US aircraft involved in anti-ISIS air strikes to relieve the Syrian town of Kobane in 2014, and is simultaneously involved in air strikes against Kurdish factions in the region. In August 2015 it was confirmed that Turkish Air Force fighters, almost certainly F-16C/Ds, had carried out their first air strikes as part of the US-led coalition against ISIS in Syria. Turkish aircraft initially launched standoff weapons to attack ISIS positions in Syria without entering Syrian airspace. The fact that Ankara’s aims are at odds with those of Russia, which commenced operations against ISIS (and other armed organisations opposing the rule of President Bashir al-Assad) on 15 September 2015, was graphically demonstrated on 24 November 2015, when a Russian Air Force Sukhoi Su-24M strike aircraft based in Syria’s Latakia on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, was shot down by Turkish Air Force F-16C after it briefly entered Turkish airspace.

Sukhoi Su-25SM
A Russian Air Force Sukhoi Su-25SM ground-attack aircraft taxis past a fully armed Sukhoi Su-34 strike aircraft at Hmeimin airbase in Latakia province, from where Russia has launched the majority of its air strikes against Syrian insurgents. (Russian MoD)

Smaller contributions have been witnessed from the United Arab Emirates Air Force which has deployed around 10 F-16E/F fighters to Muwaffaq Salti airbase. In the wake of the execution of a Jordanian F-16 pilot by ISIS in December 2014 (see above) it was reported that the UAE would stand down from operations over Syria.

European Actors

Alongside local actors, several European nations have stepped up to the mantle of providing aircraft to support OIR. The Belgian Air Component’s efforts included six F-16AM fighters that carried out 163 attacks in the course of 796 sorties over Iraq, operating from Muwaffaq Salti airbase in Jordan. Although Belgium decided to cease its contributions in July 2015, it plans to resume operations against ISIS in July 2016.

Neighbouring France has been one of the largest contributors to OIR through Operation CHAMMAL, France’s codename for its contribution. It commenced air operations over Iraq on 19 September 2014, when Dassault Rafale-F3B/C fighters of the French Air Force attacked an ISIS logistics dump south of Mosul, northern Iraq. In September 2015, France decided to expand its involvement in OIR to include Syria. The country initially deployed six Rafale-F3B/Cs and one French Navy Dassault Atlantique-2 maritime patrol aircraft to Al Dhafra airbase in the UAE. In October 2014, the number of French Air Force Rafale-F3B/Cs at Al Dhafra airbase was increased to nine. The following November 2014, the Rafales were joined by three Dassault Mirage 2000D fighters based at Muwaffaq Salti airbase, Jordan, and another three Mirage-2000Ds arrived the following month.

The initial French strikes in Syria were conducted on 27 September 2015, with five Rafale-F3B/Cs targeting an ISIS training camp south of Deir ez-Zor, eastern Syria. Earlier this year the French Air Force increased its assets deployed against ISIS. On 18 February the two French Air Force Mirage 2000D strike aircraft deployed in Niger, West Africa, were relocated to Muwaffaq Salti airbase. Additional French Navy air power is also periodically in theatre, with the carrier battle group formed around the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier. As initially deployed, the carrier air group included twelve Rafale-M fighters and nine Dassault Super Étendard Modernisé (SEM) strike aircraft (from 25 February to 18 April 2015). After returning to the Persian Gulf in November 2015, the SEMs flew their final combat sorties before the carrier returned to the Mediterranean in March 2016.

Much like France, the Netherlands has made a significant contribution to OIR with the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) basing four F-16AM fighters at Muwaffaq Salti airbase
from October 2014. RNLAF F-16AMs flew their first reconnaissance sortie over Iraq on 5 October 2014 followed by their first bombing mission two days later, striking ISIS vehicles in northern Iraq. The current Dutch mandate for participation in OIR concludes in October 2016, although the F-16s will be withdrawn before that date.

Europe’s other major contributor to OIR, alongside France, is the United Kingdom which has committed the Royal Air Force (RAF) to the campaign against ISIS in Iraq since September 2014, and in December 2015 extended its remit to include ISIS targets in Syria.

As of April 2016 the RAF deployed ten Panavia Tornado GR4 strike aircraft (two of which are held in reserve) and six Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4 fighters at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus. These totals mark an increase over the initial eight Panavia Tornado GR4/4A fighters that were committed over Iraq before the campaign was extended to Syria. As well as these combat aircraft based in Cyprus, the RAF is operating a reported ten General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) that are flying strike and reconnaissance missions from Ahmed Al Jaber airbase in Kuwait.

RAF Tornado GR4/4A
Carrying a load of Raytheon Paveway precision-guided bombs under the fuselage, an RAF Tornado GR4/4A conducts an armed reconnaissance mission over Iraq. (UK MoD)

On 21 March 2016 the UK Ministry of Defence revealed that RAF MQ-9s had conducted 200 strikes in Iraq and 13 in Syria between 1 September 2014 and 15 March 2016. In February it was disclosed that the RAF had flown 435 reconnaissance missions over Syria and 906 over Iraq, and 64 strike missions over Syria and 699 over Iraq. Between 24 January and 9 March the UK expended 14 MBDA Brimstone Air-to-Surface Missiles (ASMs) in both Iraq and Syria (launched by the Tornado GR4/4A), seven Lockheed Martin AGM-114 Hellfire II ASMs in Iraq and eight in Syria (launched by the MQ-9s), and 166 Raytheon Paveway IV precision-guided bombs in Iraq and 21 in Syria, dropped by all RAF combat aircraft and UAV types.

American Muscle

Europe’s contributors to OIR have been reinforced by those provided by North American actors. The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) has provided McDonnell Douglas/Boeing F/A-18A/B fighters based at Ahmed Al Jaber airbase, Kuwait. These aircraft have flown 1378 sorties, including 251 air strikes on ISIS targets (246 in Iraq and five in Syria), beginning on 30 October 2014. The final combat sorties were flown on 15 February 2016, prior to Canada’s withdrawal of kinetic support to OIR. Nevertheless, the RCAF continues to contribute to OIR with two Lockheed Martin P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft and a single Airbus A310-300 tanker.

By far the largest contributor to OIR has been the United States which began its involvement in the war against ISIS with a small fleet of US Army McDonnell Douglas/Boeing AH-64D Apache attack helicopters stationed in Baghdad to help defend the US Embassy. Even before the launch of OIR, however, US combat aircraft were in action against the insurgents in Iraq. On 8 August 2014 US Navy F/A-18E/Fs operating from the aircraft carrier USS George HW Bush flew the first US air strikes against ISIS militants in Iraq.

As of April 2016 the US air campaign against ISIS was being spearheaded by the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman sailing in the Persian Gulf. On board is Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 5 that includes 21 F/A-18Es, nine F/A-18Cs and eleven F/A-18Fs. Supporting these are five Boeing EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft with land-based maritime combat assets include the five McDonnell Douglas/Boeing AV-8B Harrier-II close air support aircraft of the US Marine Corps stationed at Isa airbase.

US Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier-II
A US Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier-II refuels over Iraq during a sortie in support of OIR. These aircraft have operated from both land and sea bases. (US DoD)

US Air Force (USAF) assets are regularly rotated through the theatre of operations in support of OIR and are to be found at two main operating bases: Al Dhafra airbase in the UAE, and Al Udeid airbase in Qatar. In April 2016, the USAF fighter force was concentrated at Al Dhafra and comprised six Boeing F-15E Strike Eagle fighters, and six Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptor air superiority fighters. The USAF bomber presence, meanwhile, is consolidated at Al Udeid, where in April the latest arrivals were Boeing B-52H Stratofortress strategic bombers, the first two of which arrived at the airbase on 9 April 9, replacing six Rockwell International/Boeing B-1B Lancers that returned to the US in February 2016. Active in theatre in the close air support role is a detachment of Lockheed Martin AC-130W Stinger-II gunships that are based at Incirlik airbase. Unmanned USAF assets comprise General Atomics MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper UAVs that fly strike and reconnaissance missions from Ali Al Salem airbase and from Incirlik airbase.

Boeing B-52H
At the time of writing (April) the Boeing B-52H Stratofortress strategic bomber was the latest coalition air asset to join the campaign against ISIS under Operation INHERENT RESOLVE. (US DoD)

Other Players

The Australian Defence Force’s (ADF) contribution to OIR is being conducted under Operation OKRA (the Australian codename for its contribution) and the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) has deployed combat aircraft and support aircraft to the Middle East. The first RAAF aircraft in theatre were six Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighters. Beginning in September 2014 the F/A-18E/Fs flew 61 sorties amassing 496 flying hours during which they delivered 278 weapons. Replacing the F/A-18E/Fs RAAF McDonnell Douglas/Boeing F/A-18C/D Hornet fighters flew their first strike against ISIS targets in March 2015, and by the end of January 2016 had completed 727 sorties and delivered 555 weapons. In addition, 34 sorties had been flown over Syria and 34 weapons dropped, after the ADF’s operation was expanded to Syria in November 2015. By the end of January 2016, RAAF F/A-18C/D and F/A-128E/F fighters from Al Minhad airbase in the UAE had flown a combined total of 1179 sorties accumulating 8981 flying hours and releasing 1145 precision-guided munitions.

Royal Australian Air Force Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet
A Royal Australian Air Force Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet conducts a mission over Iraq during Operation OKRA. Australia has been a major contributor to OIR. (Australian Department of Defence)

Russia

On 30 September 2015 the Russian Air Force launched combat operations against rebel groups in Syria, with the aim of bolstering Mr. Assad’s regime. While Moscow has repeatedly stated that the majority of its air strikes are directed against ISIS, most have taken place in areas controlled by other anti-Assad forces.

The Russian Air Force contingent in Syria is concentrated at Hmeimin airbase in Latakia. Its initial strength comprised six Sukhoi Su-34 strike aircraft, twelve Sukhoi Su-24M/M2 strike aircraft and the same number of 12 Sukhoi Su-25SM/UB ground-attack aircraft. Supplemented by four Su-30SM fighters and around 20 helicopters, including Mil Mi-8AMTSh medium lift utility helicopters and Mil Mi-24P gunships, the force was flying around 40 daily sorties by mid-October 2015.

After ISIS destroyer a Russian Metrojet Airbus A321-231 airliner in the skies over Egypt on 31 October 2015, from 17-20 November 2015, Russian Air Force Tupolev Tu-22M3, Tu-95MS and Tu-160 strategic bombers launched attacks on Syrian targets from airbases in Russia. The missions were repeated daily, and once over Syria air cover was provided by the Su-30SMs from Latakia airbase. While the Tu-22M3 dropped free-fall bombs, the Tu-95MS and Tu-160 both employed a total of 83 cruise missiles during this operation. Eight Su-34s and four escorting Sukhoi Su-27SM3 fighters also flew two missions from Krymsk airbase in south-western Russia.

Su-24M bomber
Part of the Russian Air Force’s so-called Special Purpose Aviation Brigade stationed in Latakia, a Su-24M bomber prepares to leave its operational base for Russia in March. (Russian MoD)

In March it was reported that the Russian military presence in Syria was to be significantly scaled back, but Russian combat aircraft have continued to operate from Syrian territory. In fact, the new Russian posture has introduced new combat aircraft to the theatre: coincident with the departure of a portion of the fighters, evidence emerged of the first examples of Kamov Ka-52 and Mil Mi-28 attack helicopters in Syria. Russian attack helicopters have since been identified at forward operating locations including al-Shayrat airbase, in western Syria and at Tiyas airbase in central Syria.

Conclusion

When the air campaign was launched against ISIS in September 2014, the presence of four Arab states—Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE (see above)—in the air strikes sent a clear message that OIR was a genuine international mission with official Sunni Arab support. However, only Saudi Arabia continues to fly air strikes under OIR, officially at least, and previously enthusiastic NATO members of the campaign have similarly returned home. With a relatively small number of air assets now facing ISIS, the ability of this force “to degrade and, ultimately, destroy the threat posed by ISIL” must be seen as questionable, at least in Syria. While Moscow’s surprise entry into the fray has not had a significant effect upon the way OIR air strikes are conducted, it has served to bolster the regime of Mr. Assad. In doing this, it may have had the paradoxical effect of assisting the rise of ISIS, and certainly hampers efforts to train moderate Syrian forces able to counter ISIS on the ground. This last point is perhaps the most important, since ‘boots on the ground’ will ultimately be vital to achieve the defeat of ISIS in the long term.

Boeing EA-18G
After making its combat debut over Libya in 2011, the Boeing EA-18G Growler is now firmly at the forefront of US and coalition electronic warfare efforts. (US DoD)

by Thomas Newdick