The Logistical Challenge Of Air Operations In Syria
The composition of the force carrying out airstrikes in Syria highlights the logistical complexity of this kind of operation. Most of the U.S. aircraft taking part in the operations over northern Iraq and Syria are based in and around the Persian Gulf, meaning they are operating far from their origins. Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar reportedly participated in the initial operations in Syria, adding further complexity and coordination issues.
While U.S. aircraft are spread around several bases in the region, the USS George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier, currently located in the Persian Gulf, has one of the highest concentrations of air assets. Carrier Wing 8 comprises 48 F/A-18 multirole aircraft as well as EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare aircraft. Elements of this strike force took part in the third wave of operations over Syria on Sept. 22. These carrier-based aircraft would have been operating more than 850 miles from their point of origin, which is beyond their combat radius.
This extended range makes aerial refueling assets necessary to conduct operations in Syria, just as they have been for operations over northern Iraq in recent weeks. These assets can extend the operational range of aircraft significantly. Yet, the dependence on aerial refueling tanker aircraft for the execution of these airstrikes is a major constraint. U.S. sources have already hinted at a lack of capability for aerial refueling, and Washington has called upon its allies to assist in building capacity for ongoing operations. Previously, when airstrikes were still limited to northern Iraq, aerial refueling aircraft enabled other aircraft to conduct long-range combat patrols and surveillance flights in a third of the air sorties conducted.
With U.S. allies in the region taking a more active role in the airstrikes, the prospect of flying more U.S. aircraft from bases in Gulf countries increases. Along with the possibility of using Turkish air bases, the potential to deploy air assets from locations in neighboring countries would simplify the logistics that go into running long-range combat patrols and airstrikes assisted by aerial refueling. A further problem to overcome, however, is the obstacle of domestic politics and the potential for regional friction as a result of involvement in a U.S.-led air campaign.