American Jump Jets Spying on Islamic State
Navy and Marines not shy about their aerial counterinsurgency
AV-8B Harrier jump jets belonging to the U.S. Marine Corps’ 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit are flying surveillance missions over Islamic State forces in northern Iraq, according to the crew of the Navy warship that carries the compact fighter-bombers in the Persian Gulf.
“The 22nd MEU’s air combat element has been flying non-traditional intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions from USS Bataan over Iraq using its AV-8B Harrier aircraft since Aug. 8,” Bataan’s public affairs staff wrote on Aug. 31.
Bataan is a Wasp-class amphibious assault ship—844 feet long from end to end—that can carry dozens of helicopters and tiltrotors plus a normal detachment of six of the vertical-landing Harrier jump jets.
Bataan is in the Persian Gulf alongside the nuclear-powered supercarrier USS George H.W. Bush, whose F/A-18F Super Hornet fighters dropped the first American bombs on Islamic State fighters on Aug. 8, after the militants surrounded tens of thousands of Yezidi refugees on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq.
The Navy’s disclosure helps fill in some of the gaps in the public’s knowledge of the new American war effort in Iraq. The Navy has confirmed that Bush’s F/A-18s have struck the militants—and that the carrier’s EA-6B jamming planes and E-2 radar planes have provided support.
Bush’s air wing includes around four dozen F/A-18s among its roughly 60 fixed-wing planes.
The Air Force has been coy about which of its own forces are involved in the fighting in Iraq. On Aug. 11, Lt. Gen. Bill Mayville from the Pentagon’s Joint Staff specified that Air Force F-16 and F-15E fighters and MQ-1 Predator drones had struck Islamic State—and that 60 surveillance aircraft, presumably including the Predators, were spying on militant fighters.
And on Aug. 17, Central Command mentioned that bombers had hit insurgents near the strategic Mosul Dam. The only bombers the Air Force keeps forward-deployed in the Middle East are B-1s, which for years have flown from Al Udeid air base in Qatar.
Then around Aug. 19, the Air Force stopped identifying its warplanes striking Iraq—in order to lend plausible deniability to Qatar and other Muslim countries that host American squadrons, including Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.
But the Navy and Marines, blissfully sailing tight circles in the international waters of the Persian Gulf, are immune to diplomatic pressure and can be as detailed as they like in their celebratory press releases.
The Iraq strikes are welcome good news for the Marines’ small Harrier community. In 2012, Taliban insurgents posing as U.S. troops infiltrated a NATO air base in southern Afghanistan, destroyed eight Harriers and killed two Marines. Today the Corps possesses around 130 AV-8s.
Although vulnerable to ground fire, the Harriers can fly slow and scan for enemy troops using their underslung Litening camera pods. Pilots can swing back around to bomb any bad guys they find, but Bataan’s press release does not state whether her Harriers are spying on and bombing Islamic State.
Bataan and her Harriers will remain in the Middle East until early October, according to the ship’s public affairs staff.