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Syrian air strikes: USAF Lancers in action

Photo: USAF

 

On April 14, at 0400hrs local time, 19 AGM-158B Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile — Extended Range (JASSM-ER) cruise missiles hit two Syrian weapons storage sites near Homs. The raid was in process while President Donald Trump was giving a speech declaring his decision to carry out the strikes against Syrian government chemical weapon facilities. Washington believed the targets either held stockpiled chemical weapons or material for their production.

It seems a total of 36 US Air Force aircraft took part in the joint operation, together with aircraft from France and the UK. Among the USAF assets were three B-1B Lancers of 37th Bomb Squadron, 28th Bomb Wing, two of which (serials 86-0111 and 86-0129) launched the 19 JASSM-ER missiles — used for the first time in combat.

The strikes were launched in the wake of the chemical attack in the Syrian city of Douma on April 7, which targeted civilians as well as members of the Islamist rebel group Jaysh al-Islam — designated as a terrorist organization by Russia and Egypt.

Initially, it seems, plans were formulated for a rapid punitive cruise missile strike against the air bases of T4/Tiyas, Shayrat and Dumayr in the early hours of April 10. This would have involved almost 60 BGM-109 Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Donald Cook (DDG 75).

Meanwhile, the US and Russian governments were apparently discussing the planned strike via diplomatic channels. Moscow’s dissatisfaction resulted in provocative flights by Russian Su-24Ms escorted by Su-30SMs close to the USS Donald Cook and the French Navy frigate Aquitaine (D650), on station almost 150km off the coast of Syria.

USAF

In the early hours of April 9, an Israeli Air Force strike against Islamic Revolutionary Guard of Corps Air and Space Force (IRGCASF) facilities at T4/Tiyas targeted a command and control site, equipment such as Shahed-129 UCAVs and Saeghe UAVs in maintenance hangars. It also led to the evacuation of all ten airworthy Su-24MK2s of the 819th Fighter Squadron and the remaining airworthy Su-22M4/UM3s of the 827th Fighter Squadron. These were moved to Hmeimim air base or other airfields (possibly Kweiris or Aleppo), closer to the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile (SAM) battery in the north of the country.

At this point it seems that a Tomahawk cruise missile strike against the now empty air bases of Tiyas, Shayrat and Dumayr was ruled out. Instead, the objective was switched to the heart of the Syrian Arab Army chemical weapon program: the Barzah scientific research center, a major scientific research establishment in Damascus believed to be used for chemical warfare research and development, and two weapon storage sites where material for production of such weapons was present.

It seems to have taken more than 72 hours to find these sites using intelligence gathered by USAF U-2S, RC-135V/U and RQ-4B aircraft, in the three days before the cruise missile strike.

Targeting chemical weapon facilities was intended not only to eliminate the Syrian Arab Army’s ability to produce chemical weapons but also to prevent an escalation of the Syrian civil war and reduce the chance of military confrontation with Russia. Despite that, Moscow was still hostile to such a strike and the US armed forces apparently prepared for any possible counterattack or military response against US aircraft and US Navy ships or submarines in the Red Sea and Mediterranean.

Since the weapon storage sites in Homs were heavily defended, it seems the AGM-158Bs was selected to reduce the chance of cruise missiles being shot down by Pantsir-S1 short-range air defense systems of the Syrian Arab Air Defense Force.

As part of defensive measures, the US Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) forward deployed eight to ten F-15Cs of the 493rd Fighter Squadron, 48th Fighter Wing from RAF Lakenheath, Suffolk to Aviano Air Base in Italy. They were to be used for force combat air patrol (FORCAP) to protect US Navy assets and the USAF’s three B-1Bs and high-value assets such as the KC-135R/T and KC-10A tankers involved in the operation. As well as the F-15Cs, F-16Cs of the 555th Fighter Squadron, 31st Operations Group home based at Aviano were involved in CAP missions during the operation.

In total, eight F-16C Block 40s were each armed with four AIM-120C Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAM), two AIM-9X Sidewinders, an AN/ALQ-131 electronic countermeasures pod and a Sniper targeting pod. Eight F-15Cs were each one armed with six AIM-120Cs, two AIM-9Xs  and a Sniper pod. These aircraft flew in two separate packages each of four F-15s and four F-16s. One of the jets from the last group of F-16s suffered a technical failure and didn’t depart Aviano.

In total, ten KC-135R/Ts of the 351st Air Refueling Squadron, 100th Air Refueling Wing (ARW) based at RAF Mildenhall, Suffolk, and a KC-135R from the 92nd ARW took part in the operation. Five of the tankers were forward deployed to Aviano to support the F-16Cs and F-15Cs while the rest participated directly from their home base in the UK. In addition, three KC-10As from the 305th Air Mobility Wing (AMW) and 60th AMW provided fuel for the B-1Bs from their forward base at Souda Bay, Crete.

Intelligence gathering before, during and after the operation was reportedly carried out by RQ-4B Block 40 serials 10-2043 and 11-2047 belonging to the 12th Reconnaissance Squadron and on deployment at Naval Air Station Sigonella, Italy, together with RC-135U 64-14847 from the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron, 55th Operations Group. A single EA-6B Prowler belonging to the USMC’s VMAQ-2 escorted the B-1Bs for most of the mission, to protect them from the Russian S-400 SAM battery. The Prowler was one of six surviving examples forward deployed to Ahmad al-Jaber air base in Kuwait.

According to Pentagon officials, all the JASSM-ERs hit their targets. While the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that some of the JASSM-ERs had been shot down by the Syrian Air Defense Force, there is so far no proof for this claim. Babak Taghvaee

USAF

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