Air Force F-35s sent to Middle East will help with fight in Syria, patrols of key strait
Stars and Stripes July 27, 2023
A squadron of F-35 Lightning IIs, some of the Air Force’s most advanced fighter jets, has arrived in the Middle East, where the planes will join patrols that aim to deter Iran from seizing oil tankers, the service said in a statement this week.
The jets will also be used in missions against the Islamic State in Syria, the 9th Air Force statement issued Wednesday said.
The deployment comes amid a recent buildup of forces in the Middle East after U.S. claims of Iranian ship seizures at sea and Russian provocations in the air.
Last week, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced the deployment of the F-35s as well as F-16 fighter jets and the destroyer USS Thomas Hudner.
A Marine expeditionary unit was also ordered to the Middle East last week, and a squadron of A-10 Thunderbolt II “Warthogs” arrived in March.
The role of these newly deployed additional forces is to “deter Iranian destabilizing activities in the region,” Army Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla said last week.
Kurilla, the head of U.S. Central Command, was referring to U.S. claims that Iran has harassed ships in the key waterway known as the Strait of Hormuz.
The Pentagon says it has stepped up patrols over the strait. Iran has been accused by the U.S. of attacking, seizing or trying to seize nearly 20 internationally flagged merchant vessels over the past two years.
The F-35s, flown by the 421st Expeditionary Fighter Squadron out of Hill Air Force Base, Utah, will partner with A-10s and F-16s already there in monitoring the strait, the 9th Air Force statement said.
“The F-35’s increased capacity and capability will allow the U.S. to fly in contested airspace across the theater if required,” it said.
Some 900 American troops are deployed to fight ISIS, but the U.S. accuses Russia of harassing its drones in Syria and placing its aircraft and pilots there at risk.
On Sunday, a Russian fighter jet flying at close range fired flares at a U.S. drone and severely damaged its propeller, the Air Force said in a statement this week.
The White House said Wednesday that a second Russian aircraft had flown “dangerously close” to another U.S. drone in the skies over Syria this week, The Associated Press reported.
The U.S. has been saying since late February that Russia’s fighter jets and surveillance drones are buzzing American bases in Syria and violating protocols developed to prevent conflict between the two countries, which back opposing factions there.
The U.S. previously deployed F-22 Raptor fighter jets to the Middle East in response to “increasingly unsafe and unprofessional behavior by Russian aircraft in the region,” an Air Force statement said at the time.