Everything You Need to Know About the Airstrikes in Syria

American defense secretary James Mattis delivers a news conference at the Pentagon in Washington DC, April 13
American defense secretary James Mattis delivers a news conference at the Pentagon in Washington DC, April 13 (DoD/Amber I. Smith)

Britain, France and the United States attacked three targets in Syria last night in retaliation for a suspected chemical attack by Bashar al-Assad:

  1. A scientific research center in the Damascus area.
  2. A chemical weapons storage site west of Homs, which Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford said was “the primary location of Syrian sarin … production equipment.”
  3. A chemical weapons equipment storage facility and command post close to the second target.

American defense secretary James Mattis called Friday’s attack a “one-time shot” and emphasized that the strikes weren’t aimed at Assad’s protector, Russia.

President Donald Trump, however, singled out Iran and Russia for their support of Assad.

“What kind of nation wants to be associated with the mass murder of innocent men, women and children?” he asked. “We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents.” Read more

Germany Deploys Frigate, Jets to Fight Islamic State

Two German Tornado jets prepare for takeoff at Schleswig Air Base, May 13, 2014
Two German Tornado jets prepare for takeoff at Schleswig Air Base, May 13, 2014 (Bundeswehr)

German ministers announced the deployment of Tornado jets, a refueling aircraft and a frigate to the Eastern Mediterranean on Thursday to support the American-led fight against the self-declared Islamic State there.

The country, Europe’s largest, has so far shied away from supporting the war against the fanatical Islamist group in Syria, citing the absence of an international mandate.

It has supplied Kurdish forces fighting the militants in the north of Iraq with military equipment. Read more

NATO Meets After Turkey Shoots Down Russian Jet

A Russian Su-24 fighter jet lands at Bassel al-Assad International Airport in Latakia, Syria, October 3
A Russian Su-24 fighter jet lands at Bassel al-Assad International Airport in Latakia, Syria, October 3 (Russian Ministry of Defense)

NATO’s North Atlantic Council met for an emergency session on Tuesday after Turkish jets shot down a Russian Su-24 warplane close to the Syrian border.

It was the first time a NATO country has downed a Russian military plane since the 1950s.

The alliance’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, told reporters after the meeting, “We stand in solidarity with Turkey and support the territorial integrity of our NATO ally.”

Earlier in the day, Turkish television had shown a jet going down in flames north of Latakia, the Syrian city from where Russian aircraft have been operating.

The two pilots parachuted out before the plane crashed. One was reportedly killed by Turkmen forces in the area and the other captured. Read more

Congress Bucks Air Force Again, Keeps A-10 Flying

Two American A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft taxi toward the end of the Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada runway for a training mission, December 10, 2010
Two American A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft taxi toward the end of the Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada runway for a training mission, December 10, 2010 (USAF/Michael R. Holzworth)

The A-10 close support aircraft, better known as the “Warthog,” is one of the most prized planes for veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The jet — which has the ability to fly low to the ground, loiter over a target for a considerable period of time, take hits from enemy ground fire and coordinate rescue missions for downed airmen — is one of the more versatile in the United States Air Force. Countless lives were undoubtably saved thanks to the unique capabilities of the A-10, particularly in Afghanistan where troops were often stationed in hard-to-reach, rural, mountainous terrain close to or surrounded by insurgent territory.

Washington’s spending problems have gotten so bad, however, that the Air Force is attempting to get rid of the A-10 fleet altogether.

For the third year in a row, Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James and the Defense Department have argued that the Warthog is too expensive to maintain and not suited for the current operational environment overseas. Tens of thousands of American forces are no longer deployed in the Middle East and tasked with performing street patrols in insurgent-invested neighborhoods. Rather, they are locked behind big bases performing missions that are largely focused on training, advising and equipping local security forces to do the fighting against insurgent and terrorist groups themselves.

“It’s not about not liking or not wanting the A-10,” General Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, said earlier this year. “It’s about some very tough decisions that we have to make to recapitalize an Air Force for the threat ten years from now.”

The problem, in other words, is money. Sequestration, which mandates artificial cuts in all defense and domestic spending, is forcing the armed services to make some difficult decisions. Getting rid of the A-10 and making room for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is seen as a much better investment for the warfighter of the future.

Members of Congress disagree. Despite the Air Force’s request to retire the Warthog fighter, the House and Senate Armed Services Committees have insisted on keeping the plane flying for three years in a row. The National Defense Authorization Act that was passed by the House last month and approved by the Senate several weeks ago prohibits the Air Force from using any money to “retire, prepare to retire, or place in storage or on backup aircraft inventory status” any A-10 jet.

Under the legislation, manning levels and crews for the A-10 fleet are kept at their present level and the Air Force is required to keep at least 171 of the planes available for combat missions on short notice.

The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Mac Thornberry, argues that it makes little sense to cut an aircraft that is currently in service in the Middle East. The majority of Congress appears to agree.

Whether or not the Obama Administration will be able to convince Congress to acquiesce in the A-10 drawdown will depend in large measure on the ability of the Air Force to field a replacement. The F-35, a fifth-generation fighter aircraft that is capable of doing close air support missions, is supposed to be the replacement. But this expensive new weapons system has experienced its fair share of setbacks.

From a wargame that showed the F-35 rendered ineffective against Chinese and Russian fighters, to mishaps with the engine and deficiencies in the software program, the F-35 program has caused a lot of concern among members of Congress and government watchdogs which are quick to call out the initiative’s soaring cost overruns. If the F-35 was scheduled to be operational in a short period of time or was already operational, then the A-10 community would probably lose some of its influence and power. But this isn’t the case.

As long as the F-35 struggles to get off the ground and the A-10 continues to perform well, Congress will likely buck the Air Force and keep funding the fleet. But that also means budgeters in the Pentagon have to go back to the drawing board to determine where they can find the billions of dollars in savings that same Congress mandated them to make.

Airstrikes Deepen Iranian-Saudi Proxy War in Yemen

A Royal Saudi Air Force Tornado fighter jet takes off, May 13, 1992
A Royal Saudi Air Force Tornado fighter jet takes off, May 13, 1992 (DoD/H.H. Deffner)

Saudi Arabia escalated its proxy war with rival Iran in Yemen on Wednesday when it launched airstrikes against Shia rebels who have driven the country’s internationally-recognized president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi, into hiding.

Al Jazeera reported that the strikes targeted the presidential palace as well as police and military headquarters in Sana’a where loud, house-shaking explosions resonated in the night.

The kingdom’s ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubeir, confirmed at a news conference in Washington that it had started a joint military campaign with Arab Gulf allies in a bid to “protect and defend the legitimate government.”

We will do whatever it takes in order to protect the legitimate government of Yemen from falling.

Hadi’s foreign minister had urged nearby Arab Gulf states to intervene in the conflict on Monday.

Later in the day, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Saud bin Faisal Al Saud, warned that “necessary measures” could be taken against Iranian “aggression” in the impoverished Arab country.

After the Houthis took control of Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, and dissolved parliament last month, Iran helped the Shia rebels consolidate their position there. A delegation of Houthi leaders traveled to Tehran for talks earlier this month. Iranian medical supplies arrived in Yemen a day after the two regimes signed an aviation agreement.

On Tuesday, American officials told the Reuters news agency that Saudi Arabia was moving armor and artillery to its border with Yemen. The Saudis said the military movements were defensive.

Iran and Saudi Arabia are locked in a struggle for hegemony in the Middle East and also back opposing sides in the Syrian Civil War. Iran supports the regime of President Bashar al-Assad while Saudi Arabia has armed and financed the largely Sunni uprising against him.

The possibility that its ally, America, will do a nuclear deal with Iran has heightened Saudi Arabia’s security concerns. The desert kingdom fears that the United States will acquiesce in recent Iranian strategic gains in Iraq — where Tehran supports the Baghdad government’s fight against Islamic State militants — under an agreement that should stop Iran from making atomic weapons.

Yemen’s slide into civil war had made the country a critical battlefield in the Iranian-Saudi standoff.

In recent days, unidentified warplanes have attacked Hadi’s residence in Aden, the port city where he established a remnant government after the Houthis drove him out of Sana’a.

A third faction in Yemen is formed by supporters of Hadi’s predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The former strongman, who presided over Yemen’s unification in 1990 and a civil war that started in 1994 when the south tried to secede, was forced out of office by his Arab Gulf neighbors in 2012 amid fears of an “Arab Spring”-style uprising in the country. His faction has tacitly supported the Houthis by refusing to take sides in their disputes with Hadi while Saleh himself has called on Hadi to step down.

The Houthis rejected constitutional reforms proposed by Hadi under which the former North Yemen would have been split up into four autonomous regions. Leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi said Hadi’s plan would have strengthened Sunni and pro-Saudi fiefdoms at the expense of Yemen’s unity.

Both Saudi Arabia and the United States had allied with Hadi against the Al Qaeda terrorist group in Yemen which is considered by experts to be its most dangerous.

Hadi’s whereabouts on Wednesday were unknown.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates previously deployed troops to Bahrain in 2011 to put down protests led by the island’s majority Shia community. Warplanes from Gulf states have also participated in American-led strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria while Emirate jets carried out attacks in Libya against the positions of a rival Islamist government in Tripoli earlier this year.

Lack of Maritime Patrol Aircraft Reinforces British Defense Flaws

A Royal Air Force Sentinel surveillance aircraft flies over RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire, England, July 3, 2010
A Royal Air Force Sentinel surveillance aircraft flies over RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire, England, July 3, 2010 (Jonathan Kershaw)

In 2012, a House of Commons Defense Committee meeting on future maritime surveillance discussed the threat posed by Russian intelligence gathering efforts against Britain’s nuclear deterrent. The committee heard that the absence of a maritime patrol aircraft, a shortage of towed-array equipped escort vessels and the possible retasking of attack submarines could result in a reduced anti-submarine capability. As a result of these shortcomings, “a resurgent Russian navy can now threaten our SSBN fleet and operate with confidence around our shores.”

This seemingly prophetic warning has now been thrust into the headlines.

In late November, a suspected periscope was spotted by a trawler west of Scotland in an area where British ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) are believed to transit en route to their patrol areas.

With no way of finding and identifying the alleged intruder, the British government was forced to rely on its NATO allies to patrol its territorial waters.

First to arrive at Lossiemouth was a French Atlantique aircraft, followed the next day by a pair of American Orions and a British Sentinel R1. A Canadian Aurora also joined the search.

There has been no report that the elusive submarine was ever found, suggesting that it successfully, if not unsurprisingly, evaded the efforts of this multinational search party.

This is all rather embarrassing for the Ministry of Defense given that Sir Peter Luff, the minister responsible for defense equipment, assured the House of Commons in 2010 that a combination of the Type 23 frigate, the Merlin helicopter and C-130, as well as reliance on allies and partners, “would be able to mitigate the capability gap” lost through the cancelation of Nimrod MRA4.

The absence of a dedicated maritime patrol aircraft dates back to the decision in the 2010 Strategic Defense and Security Review not to bring the Nimrod MRA4 into service.

That the sole Royal Air Force aircraft available to participate in the search is not deemed capable of maritime surveillance is evidenced by a Ministry of Defense’s £198 million plan to upgrade the software of the five Sentinels. This is expected to enable them to carry out a rudimentary maritime patrol role as part of a service life extension plan to keep the modest fleet operational until 2018. However, the company that makes the Sentinels has said “the aircraft would not fit a maritime patrol aircraft role” even after this upgrade so the undertaking may prove fruitless after all.

The Royal Navy managed to contribute one of its thirteen remaining frigates capable of undertaking anti-submarine operations, a job soon to be carried out by only eight “tail-equipped” frigates of the Type 26 class. In doing so, however, it demonstrated that the “fleet” is stretched to the limit and that the fallacy of more capability on fewer hulls would be laughable were its implications not so serious. With the Fleet Ready Escort searching for a mystery submarine, a cannon-equipped patrol boat was all that remained to shadow a quartet of Russian warships through the English Channel.

For an island nation that is dependent on importing food and energy from abroad, the absence of a maritime patrol aircraft is little short of a national disgrace. Through the fifty years of the Cold War, the Royal Navy’s primary mission was the plugging of the GIUK gap to prevent Soviet submarines terrorizing the sea lines of communication between North America and Europe. Now neither the Royal Air Force nor the Royal Navy seems capable of fulfilling their primary role — ensuring the security of the United Kingdom.

Belgium, Netherlands to Support Air Campaign in Iraq

Two Dutch F-16 fighter jets take off from Leeuwarden Air Base for a training mission
Two Dutch F-16 fighter jets take off from Leeuwarden Air Base for a training mission (Ministerie van Defensie)

Belgium and the Netherlands said on Wednesday they would join Arab and American airstrikes against Islamic militants in Iraq but stop short of carrying out attacks in neighboring Syria where the group that calls itself the Islamic State is also active.

While Iraq’s government has formally asked other countries to help it battle the Islamic State, Dutch ruling Labor Party leader Diederik Samsom said on Sunday his party could only support military action in Syria under an international mandate. However, a United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing strikes is likely to be blocked by Russia, an ally of Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad.

There is nevertheless strong parliamentary support in the Netherlands for joining the war against the Islamic State. Deputy Prime Minister Lodewijk Asscher told a news conference Wednesday night six Dutch F-16s would be made available for strikes for a year while two more fighter jets will remain on standby.

Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, the defense minister, added the jets would likely operate out of Jordan. She also said Dutch military personnel would be deployed to Iraq to advise and train local soldiers.

A majority of Belgian lawmakers also favors participating in the effort. The caretaker government there needs parliament’s backing before sending six F-16s.

Hundreds of Belgian and Dutch Muslims are believed to have joined the Islamic State’s jihad. The group controls an arc of territory from Aleppo in Syria to near the western edge of Iraq’s capital, Baghdad, and has made itself notorious by slaughtering nonbelievers and beheading foreigners.

France already carries out strikes with Rafale fighter jets operating out of the United Arab Emirates. Australia sent warplanes of its own to the same country while Britain is expected to join the alliance soon.

The United States first launched airstrikes against the Iraqi militants in August when they menaced the territory of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in the north of the country. Western powers, including France, Germany and the United Kingdom, have since supplied weapons to the Kurds to help them fend off the Islamic State’s attacks.

Earlier this week, American cruise missiles and warplanes, launches from navy ships and an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea as well as bases in allied Arab monarchies, struck Islamic State targets in Syria. Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates participated in the attacks while Qatar provided logistical support.

The mission was not limited to hitting the Islamic State. The United States said jets also struck eight targets associated with another terrorist organization in Syria made of up Al Qaeda veterans.