US Air Force

High-tech US hardware can minimize the risk of pilot capture in ISIS air war

Two U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor stealth jet fighters fly near Andersen Air Force Base in this handout photo dated Aug. 4, 2010.

Two U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor stealth jet fighters fly near Andersen Air Force Base in this handout photo dated Aug. 4, 2010.  (REUTERS/U.S. Air Force/Master Sgt. Kevin J. Gruenwald/Handout )

The horrific killing of captured Jordanian Air Force Lieutenant Muath al-Kaseasbeh by Islamic State militants has highlighted the risks coalition pilots face as they fly combat missions against ISIS positions in Iraq and Syria. 

Lt. Muath al-Kasaesbeh was flying a Jordanian F-16 against an ISIS target in northern Syria when the fighter jet became the first aircraft lost since the U.S.-led coalition began air strikes against ISIS in Syria.  ISIS claims have brought the F-16 down using an anti-aircraft missile. This claim has been challenged by the U.S. military, who have stated that evidence suggested ISIS militants did not bring down the aircraft, implying some form of mechanical failure left the pilot with little option other than to eject.

Either shot down or brought down by malfunction, the Jordanian F-16 loss highlights the risk to coalition pilots flying combat missions against ISIS militants. ISIS would likely rank the capture of a U.S. pilot as the highest value coalition air crew target from a propaganda perspective. Currently, the vast majority of U.S. airstrikes against ISIS are being conducted by older, less stealthy, aircraft, particularly the F-16, F-15E, and the A-10. The U.S. military is fully aware of the significant propaganda coup ISIS would gain from capturing an American serviceman alive.

For this reason, among others, President Obama will remain highly reluctant to order any U.S. “boots on the ground” response to the ISIS threat, continuing to opt for an extended U.S. and coalition air campaign designed to denigrate ISIS capabilities, while at the same time equipping local forces, particularly Kurdish militia, to engage ISIS on the battlefield.

ISIS fighters are known to have captured a significant amount of high-tech weaponry, including anti-aircraft weapons, from fleeing Iraqi forces during the significant advances they made in Iraq in 2014.  As a result, the U.S. is likely considering a shift to its most modern and technically capable manned and unmanned aircraft to conduct the air campaign against ISIS targets to minimize the risk of a U.S. pilot being captured by the barbaric Islamist group.

Options available to Pentagon war planners as they develop their strategy to defeat IS militants in Iraq and Syria include high-tech piloted stealth aircraft such as the F-22 Raptor,  which made its combat debut in bombing runs over Syria last year, and the B-2 Spirit bomber. The low radar signature, advanced avionics, and countermeasures of these aircraft reduce the risk that ISIS anti-aircraft weaponry could bring one of these cutting-edge warplanes down.

The B-2 Spirit has conducted long-range missions in the region previously, notably against Iraq and Libya, and has suffered no operational losses. These missions involved non-stop flight from the B-2 Spirit’s home at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, with the bombers’ approximately 7,000-mile range increased with the assistance of aerial refueling.

The most modern and highest tech U.S. pilotless drones can also assist piloted stealth aircraft in the coalition air strategy to fight ISIS militants with no risk of crew capture. In Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, armed and unarmed U.S. Predator and Reaper drones have made a significant contribution to air campaigns against Islamist militants. Often extensive high-tech intelligence gathering and surveillance missions were conducted using drones as a precursor to any “executive action.” Similarly intensive intelligence gathering and surveillance operations by unmanned drones over Iraq and Syria will be a key element in U.S. air operations targeting ISIS leadership and infrastructure.

Avoiding a repeat of the capture and brutal public execution of Jordanian Air Force pilot Muath al-Kasaesbeh is likely a high priority for planners of the coalition air campaign against ISIS militants, particularly for U.S. strategists.  Making the best use of the high-tech piloted stealth aircraft and unmanned drones available to U.S. commanders would seem the most effective strategy to minimize the risk of handing a similar propaganda coup to ISIS.