air strikes

Air Strikes – Do You Know All The Aircraft Attacking ISIL?

Daily air strikes continue to hurt ISIL by chipping away at their infrastructure and resources.

A brief look behind the headlines shows us just how large the air campaign is. In short, 9 categories of military aircraft are deployed in the fight against ISIL. Around half are attack aircraft, the rest provide essential support functions to make the air strikes possible.

Coalition Air Strikes

air strikes

As at 2 November 2016, the US Department of Defense reports:

  • Total Coalition air strikes        15,959
  • Strikes in Iraq                            10,310
  • Strikes in Syria                           5,649

These daily air strikes have targeted everything from tanks and ISIL fighters to oil infrastructure. The US Department of Defence has produced a graphic placing numbers against targets damaged or destroyed up to 26 September 2016. These are amazing if not shocking statistics.

“16,000 air strikes have damaged or destroyed 32,000+ targets”

Attack Aircraft

The well-known aircraft are present as pictured in the gallery below. One aircraft that provides a surprise is the Vietnam War era OV-10 Bronco.

Why did a Vietnam War Era Aircraft Fly Combat Missions in 2015?

The Bronco first flew in 1965 and retired in the 1990’s. For 82 days, starting in May 2015, two (2) OV-10 Bronco’s flew 134 sorties, 120 of those being combat missions. Why?air strikes

  1. It is a low-cost option – the OV-10 costs $1,000 per flight hour compared to a F-15 costing $40,000 per flight hour.
  2. A robust and reliable aircraft –  available for 99% of planned operations during the 82 days.
  3. Fast response time – the OV-10 can operate from field runways close to the front lines. Especially useful when supporting Special Forces soldiers.

The Daily Beast reported the use of the OV-10 was an experiment, a successful one at that, to examine the effectiveness of a turboprop light attack aircraft in a modern-day environment.

Lt. General Bradley Heithold the head of the Air Force Special Forces Command threw cold water on the OV-10 being a regular participant in future air campaigns when addressing a defense industry conference in February 2016:

 “The OV-10’s have some utility but it’s too expensive to pay for training and supplies for a fleet of just two.”

For the record, the US Navy upgraded the two OV-10’s in the 2000’s as part of the “Navy Special Warfare Combat Dragon II Program“. Designated “OV-10G+” the upgrades included mechanical, communications, sensors and new defensive systems.

 Multirole Fighter Aircraft

The attack aircraft represent older generation thinking when aircraft had a specific role such as air interception or air dominance rolesair strikes. The new generation mind-set is to build aircraft that are the jack of all trades and hopefully good at each of them. There is always controversy over what aircraft is multi-role or very good at one role and capable of another. Two examples to consider:

  • F-22 Raptor: An air superiority fighter with ground attack capabilities. In the war against ISIL the F-22 used its attack capability only. Does this make the F-22 a multi-role fighter?
  • F-15 Strike Eagle: Developed from an air superiority fighter (e.g. F-15C) into an attack fighter with the later F-15E. Does this make the F-15E an attack fighter with air to air capability or is it a multi-role aircraft?

The notable omission from this gallery of aircraft is the F-35B Lightning II. The Marines declared Initial Operating Capability with the F-35B in 2015 but are still using the AV-8B II Harrier to conduct air strikes against ISIL. Lt. Gen. Jon Davis clarified this when he told reporters that the Marine Corps’ two F-35B squadrons are expected to go to sea starting in the spring of 2018, but the F-35B is ready to go right now.” Source:

Fighter Bombers

A fighter-bomber is a fighter aircraft built or modified to perform as a light bomber and/or attack aircraft. These aircraft could easily be called multi-role fighters today as those fighters pictured  above can carry and deploy similar weapons loads to the fighter-bomber. For now I consider them a specific type and placed four aircraft in this category.


The bombers deployed in Iraq and Syria are only from the USA and Russia. Not surprising really, given both country’s were participants in the Cold War from 1947-1991. Developed and manufactured during the cold war the bombers pictured below are displaying fantastic longevity. The exception is the TU-160 which had one-off production runs in 2000 and 2008.

So…….where are the new bombers?

  1. B-2 Spirit stealth bomber is in active service. Due to its cost and strategic importance the B-2 wil stay in the hanger for this war. There is just no reason to use it.
  2. B-21 Raider is the new USAF Long Range Strike Bomber being developed by Northrop Grumman. The B-21 will be delivered in the mid 2020’s to replace the aging B-52 and B-1 bombers.
  3. Xian H-20 is a new sub-sonic strategic bomber being developed by China.
  4. Tupolev PAK DA is a new stealthy strategic bomber being developed by Russia. Like the B-21 we will see this bomber in the mid 2020’s.

We will need to be patient as it will be 10 years until any new bombers come on-line.

Electronic Warfare Fighters

The “EA” stands for Electronic Attack.

Both these aircraft are capable of jamming the enemy radar and radio systems. Degradation of enemy systems by these aircraft reduces the likelihood of attacking aircraft being detected and effectively engaged. The EA-6B is flown by the US Marines while the EA-18G has replaced the EA-6B for the Navy.

The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) has purchased twelve (12)  EA-18G Growlers with IOC planned for 2018. You can read about this purchase and the additional costs Australia has incurred while it waits for the arrival of the very late F-35 in my earlier post Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II – An Australian View.

It should be noted that the F-35 has an Electronic Warfare capability. There has been speculation in the media that the F-35 electronic warfare capability is falling short of expectations. This speculation has been given legs by the US Navy’s request to buy more EA-18G Growlers to support the F-35C and its other aircraft.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV)

A UAV is known by many names these days including Remote Piloted Aircraft (RPA), Drone, Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS). I am sure there are other names however we can stick to UAV for this post.

UAV’s started out as surveillance only aircraft. Now they are armed with the likes of the Hellfire Missile and conducting air strikes on a daily basis.  The daily reports can be viewed on the Operation Inherent Resolve website.

Aerial Refuelling (Tankers)

The tankers play a vital role in keeping aircraft in the air for extended periods. There are two primary refuelling processes:

Boom and Receptacle

The boom is a rigid tube extended from the tanker. A operater on the tanker is responsible for mating the boom with the receptacle on the receiving aircraft.

Users of this method include USAF fixed wing aircraft and typically countries using the F-15 and F-16 such as Netherlands, Israel and Turkey.

Probe and Drogue:

A flexible fuel hose (probe) extends behind the tanker. Attached to the end of the probe is a basket that resembles a shuttlecock (drogue). The receiving aircraft has a rigid arm extended and the pilot flies the extended arm into the basket.

Users of the Probe & Drogue refuelling system include the US Navy, US Marines and US military helicopters


The Royal Australian Air Force has purchased an Airbus A330 Multi Role Transport &  Tankers (MRTT). The MRTT carries both the Boom and Probe mechanisms to enable it to refuel its current and future aircraft. For example the F/A-18 Hornet and Super Hornet, a US Navy aircraft, use the Probe. The new F-35A, a USAF aircraft,  uses the boom).

Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) Aircraft

ISTAR improves a military commander’s awareness of what is happening in the theatre of operation. A commander can use real-time information to develop plans and deploy troops effectively.

Aircraft of all shapes and sizes conduct ISTAR missions in Iraq and Syria. The aircraft conduct intelligence gathering, imagery collection, artillery spotting, early warning of enemy movement including aircraft, battlefield command and control positions.

We cannot forget the UAV is regularly tasked with ISTAR missions.

Transport Aircraft

These aircraft include helicopters and piston or jet engined aircraft that fit into two categories:

Strategic Lift – aircraft that transport troops and equipment long distances such as from the home airbase to the forward airbase. An example of this is the C-17 Globemaster.

Tactical Lift – aircraft that move troops and equipment around a specific area of operation. An example below would be the C-130 Hercules, the Airbus A400M and helicopters.

Like other aircraft in this post, transport aircraft can be multi-role. The CH-47 Chinook is a heavy lift transport helicopter that is air strikesregularly used to convey troops to and from the battle field as it is big, fast, robust with a large loading ramp.

Most of the aerial refuellers (Tankers) deployed to Iraq/Syria carry passengers and/or cargo.

The RAAF Radschool Association Magazine provided an inside look at new KC-30A at the 2013 Avalon Airshow. The image shows the KC-30A still has standard seating of the A330-200 it is based on.

 The Last Word 

China is conspicuous by its absence. This is due to China’s long-standing non-interventionist policy. This may be true, it may even be born from tradition and good will however with air forces from 20 countries conducting air strikes to date, it is time for China, with the largest military in the world, to take some of the load off other nations.

What do you think?


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