U.S. Stealth Fighters Escorted Jordanian Revenge Strikes
F-22 pilots shepherded allies through dangerous air space
When Jordan’s air force launched a campaign of revenge air raids on Islamic State in Syria in early February, U.S. Air Force fighter jets helped protect the Jordanian F-16s as they flew over enemy territory.
The American escorts included F-16CJs specially equipped to find and destroy surface-to-air radars—and also F-22 Raptor stealth fighters, which flew their first ever combat missions in the opening hours of the U.S.-led air campaign targeting Islamic State militants Syria beginning in September.
A small number of F-22s—likely six or a dozen—has been active over Syria ever since, steadily honing a new specialty as escorts for older, less stealthy planes.
The twin-engine Raptors, apparently flying from Al Dhafra in the United Arab Emirates, are now part of the “standard strike package” for coalition air raids hitting Syria, Pentagon spokesman Steve Warren, a U.S. Army colonel, told Air Force Times.
Jordan sent F-16s to join American, Saudi, Emirati, British, French, Belgian, Danish, Dutch, Canadian and Australian warplanes striking Islamic State forces in Iraq starting in August—and later in Syria.
As of Feb. 5, the coalition had flown 1,259 raids in Iraq and 1,035 in Syria. The Pentagon waited to commit the F-22s until the aerial campaign expanded into Syria on Sept. 23.
The Pentagon fretted over air defenses—radars, guns and missiles—that the militants had captured from the Syrian army. And the American planners also worried that the regime in Damascus, while an enemy of Islamic State, might respond to U.S.-led air incursions by activating its own radars and missiles, and possibly even its air force.
So for the raids into Syria, the Americans provided a heavy escort force—U.S. Navy EA-6B jamming jets and Air Force F-16CJs packing anti-radar missiles as well as the F-22s which, besides being stealthy, boast sophisticated sensors for locating enemy radars … and are also the world’s best air-to-air dogfighters.
“The greatest capability the F-22 brings is its integrated avionics, its fused avionics that facilitate situational awareness,” Air Force major general Jeffrey Harrigian said. “It is not just for the pilot in the airplane, but really for the entire package that is going to execute the mission.”
To hit the militant targets closest to Syrian defenses, the speedy, elusive F-22s left the older warplanes behind and attacked independently, dropping satellite-guided bombs while an unspecified recon plane—possibly an RQ-170 stealth drone—shot video of the bombs’ impacts.
It made sense to deploy the Raptors “in the areas where they’re concerned about being highly defended, and originally, the first couple nights that was a concern until we understood how the Syrian integrated air defenses would work,” Harrigian explained to Air Force magazine.
Tragedy struck the coalition on Dec. 24 when a Jordanian F-16 suffered a malfunction and crashed near the Syrian city of Ar Raqqa, Islamic State’s “capital.” Moaz Al Kasasbeh, the 26-year-old pilot, ejected and militants captured him.
Sometime shortly thereafter, the militants shoved Al Kasasbeh into a cage and burned him alive. The terror group released a video of the murder in early February.
In retaliation, Jordan promptly executed two prisoners with ties to Islamic State—and escalated its air raids. The kingdom’s F-16s flew 56 sorties into Syria in three days starting Feb. 6. “We achieved what we were looking for—revenge for Moaz,” Jordanian major general Mansour Al Jabour said.
But that revenge needed American help—the escorting F-16CJs and F-22s. And the Pentagon had apparently anticipated the need. This year, the Air Force chief of staff personally approved Raptors to join, for the first time, the Advanced Tactical Leadership Course in the UAE.
The semi-annual leadership course brings together planes and crews from the U.S. and its closest European and Middle East allies—usually including Jordan—to intensively prepare for possible air campaigns. The F-22s’ participation in the January edition of the war game helped expose Jordanian pilots to the stealth fighters’ unique abilities.
It’s worth noting that that the F-22s joined the Emirati training program after Al Kasasbeh’s capture and before Jordan launched its retaliatory raids under the Raptors’ protection.