With Afghanistan banned, US seeks safe airspace as Middle East mission continues

WASHINGTON – The US Air Force has now been present in the Middle East for more than three decades. Even the end of the war in Afghanistan is unlikely to mean a major withdrawal from the region.

As the Air Force adjusted his posture – for example, bring home your EC-130H Compass Call electronic warfare planes for the first time in 20 years – retired General Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle does not expect a radical rebalancing of air power assets in the Middle East.

“That will change, but… it may not be as drastic or as important as some people may think,” said Carlisle, the former chief of Air Combat Command who is now the chief executive of the National. Defense Industrial Association, in an October 21 statement. interview with Defense News.

U.S. Air Force Central Command did not respond to questions at press time.

John Venable, former Air Force fighter pilot and conservative Heritage Foundation defense policy expert, said he suspected the United States would withdraw other strategic platforms – such as reconnaissance planes RC-135 Rivet Joint – and only retreated in response to an emerging threat.

Many regional challenges remain that will prevent the Air Force from making drastic changes, Carlisle said. Some mission sets could change, he explained, but the chances of fighter, refueling or mobility aircraft units returning from air bases like Incirlik in Turkey or Al Dhafra in the United Arab Emirates are slim.

Indeed, the Air Force is probably not done with Afghanistan. Militant organizations such as the local branch of the Islamic State group, ISIS-Khorasan and al-Qaida are still present there. The Biden administration has repeatedly stressed that it plans to carry out airstrikes on the horizon if terrorists pose a threat to the United States, which will require a continued Air Force presence – y including fighters or bombers to carry out strikes; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft; drones; and other aircraft and support functions such as tankers.

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Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall and Chief of Staff General CQ Brown said in September that strikes on the horizon would not be much different from previous airstrikes in the region, although the Head of the US Air Forces Central, Lieutenant General Gregory Guillot is still ironing. out the details.

“We made support on the horizon [of] counterterrorism operations for a long time, ”Kendall told the Air Force Association annual conference. “It’s a matter of scale, as much as anything at this point.”

Carlisle said the military needs to figure out exactly what it wants from the missions on the horizon. Would they be used to observe terrorist training camps using ISR planes and then, if necessary, call for an airstrike? Or would this ability be used to bomb a “single bad terrorist actor,” he wondered? And how would that work if the United States does not recognize the Taliban-led government of Afghanistan?

Tensions with Iran also remain high, which Carlisle says will additionally require the Air Force to stay put. The Pentagon has alleged that Iran supports, among others, the Kata’ib Hezbollah and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada militias in Syria, and said it carried out drone attacks against US personnel and facilities in Iraq. The United States has carried out airstrikes twice this year along the Iraqi-Syrian border against the groups and their installations.

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The United States also wants to keep the Strait of Hormuz open, the only way for ships to leave the Persian Gulf to open seas. Iran has periodically threatened to block the vital conduit for oil shipments and other commerce.

For “the land component [of the military], leaving Afghanistan had a pretty big impact, ”Carlisle said. “I think the naval, air and space components are still going to find a great demand signal from this part of the world.”

But the loss of air bases in Afghanistan, including Bagram Airfield near Kabul and Kandahar Airfield in the south of the country, limits the United States’ ability to conduct counterterrorism operations in the region.

Other local bases have the capacity and flexibility to absorb operations that once operated from Afghanistan, Carlisle said, but US pilots will have to fly further, which impairs response times and requires additional support from the share of oil tankers.

“Speed, range and payload are going to be a factor,” Carlisle said. “I know the Air Force is looking at this closely.”

Remotely piloted planes have been particularly useful in the region over the past two decades, Carlisle said, and that will likely continue – especially in keeping an eye on Iran.

Venable said he expects drones to be useful for over-the-horizon efforts related to targets in Afghanistan, particularly as the flight of manned planes over that nation has become considerably more risky since the Taliban takeover. If an aircrew falls in the Taliban-controlled country, a combat search and rescue team will have to extract them before they are captured. Such a team taking off from the Gulf would face long flight times, require air-to-air refueling, and would have to negotiate with Pakistan for a safe air route, among other complications.

But a drone that crashes in Afghanistan is simply a waste of material, Venable said.

To support their drone capabilities, the United States could seek an agreement with a country bordering Afghanistan to authorize clandestine UAV bases, Venable said. But given Russian influence in the region, the strength of the Taliban and the way the United States left Afghanistan, it could be difficult, he added, even with a friendly country like Uzbekistan. .

“Uzbekistan [doesn’t] want regional issues, ”Venable said. “And after the United States unplugged Afghanistan and left all of our allies in a bind, why would they bet on us?” For now, I think they will sit down and wait for things to settle down before allowing us to operate – clandestinely or officially – out of their country.

This will mean flying drones or manned planes to Afghanistan from Al Dhafra and Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, he said. But again, that means flying around Iran and through Pakistani airspace – known to pilots as the Boulevard.

“The trip itself… isn’t too strenuous, it’s just a long flight,” Venable said.

While the United States may change its position in the region, Carlisle said, American allies and partners there should expect a continued American role.

“I think there was a mistaken belief that we are outside of Afghanistan therefore we are outside of the Middle East,” Carlisle said. “There couldn’t be further from the truth.”

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