An F-35A Lightning II is pictured at Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates, April 15, 2019.

An F-35A Lightning II is pictured at Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates, April 15, 2019. (Chris Thornbury/U.S. Air Force)

A pair of Air Force F-35A Lightning II aircraft carried out an airstrike on an Islamic State tunnel network in northern Iraq on Tuesday, marking the service’s first combat use of the aircraft, the military said.

The strike by the conventional takeoff and landing variant of the Joint Strike Fighters was conducted deep in Iraq’s Hamrin Mountains, U.S. Air Forces Central Command said in a statement.

Israel became the first to use the F-35 operationally last May, followed by the Marine Corps’ first attack with F-35Bs — the vertical takeoff and landing variant — against Taliban targets in Afghanistan.

Earlier this month, F-35s of the active duty 388th and reserve 419th fighter wings out of Hill Air Force Base, Utah, first deployed to Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates — the service’s third deployment of the aircraft and its first to Central Command, where they are assigned to the 4th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron.

The aircraft previously deployed to Royal Air Force Lakenheath and the U.S. Pacific Command area of responsibility in 2017.

The Lockheed Martin stealth jet is the U.S. military’s most expensive weapon ever produced and the program that produced it has long been plagued by problems. The latest of these were serious flaws in the supply chain for spare parts, outlined in a Government Accountability Office report last week.

In their Air Force combat debut, the jets used a Joint Direct Attack Munition against an ISIS tunnel network and weapons cache in an area called Wadi Ashai, where Iraqi and coalition forces have been battling ISIS sleeper cells.

Coalition officials believe ISIS has been moving materiel and people through the mountainous area to support its resurgent operations.

Backed by coalition forces, Iraqi counter-terrorism units launched an attack on ISIS cells and a support base in the same area last week, Operation Inherent Resolve said in a separate statement on Tuesday. Inherent Resolve is the U.S.-led international coalition battling ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

Tuesday’s strike in the region comes a day after an ISIS media group released a recent video recording of their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

The rare footage of Baghdadi offered the first publicly released images of him since he declared the group’s caliphate from Mosul’s Al Nuri Grand Mosque in 2014. In it, the terrorist leader took credit for the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka, and claimed that “jihad will continue until Judgment Day.”

Observers believe the video was meant to prove Baghdadi is still alive — some in the West and Russia had claimed he may have been dead or seriously wounded — and to motivate his supporters following their loss last month of the final patch of their self-declared caliphate in eastern Syria.

The extremist group’s resurgent campaign has been gaining momentum across Iraq and Syria, the research group Institute for the Study of War said in an assessment.

“ISIS is expanding its support zones and scaling up its attack campaign in key cities” including Raqqa In Syria and Mosul and Fallujah in Iraq, as well as areas in northern Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan, the assessment said.

The loss of its physical caliphate was a heavy blow for ISIS, but it’s not the end of the fight, Maj. Gen. Christopher Ghika, a deputy commander with Inherent Resolve, said in a statement Tuesday.

Last week’s combined operations in Wadi Ashai was the largest by Iraqi and coalition forces since U.S.-backed forces routed ISIS from its last stronghold in the eastern Syrian village of Bagouz in late March, officials said.

Coalition forces destroyed multiple tunnel systems, buildings, caves and command and control positions to prepare for Iraqi clearance operations, the coalition statement said.

“The [Counter-Terrorism Service] have dealt a major blow to Daesh’s ambitions,” Ghika said, using an Arabic acronym for ISIS. “With this strike, they lose even more of their capacity to destabilize Iraq.” Twitter: @chadgarland

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Chad is a Marine Corps veteran who covers the U.S. military in the Middle East, Afghanistan and sometimes elsewhere for Stars and Stripes. An Illinois native who’s reported for news outlets in Washington, D.C., Arizona, Oregon and California, he’s an alumnus of the Defense Language Institute, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Arizona State University.

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