U.S. Withdraws F-35s From Mideast After Rapid Redeployment to Confront Russia, Iran and Syria

The U.S. Air Force has withdrawn its F-35A fifth generation fighters from the Middle East, after forward deploying the aircraft to an unknown facility in the region under the 421st Air Expeditionary Squadron from July 26. The aircraft had been deployed at a time of high tensions with Russia and Iran alongside naval ships, including the assault carrier USS Bataan carrying Marine Corps F-35B fighters, as well as older Air Force F-16 fighters and A-10 ground attack jets. “What the F-35s did is they gave us additional capacity,” Air Forces Central (AFCENT) commander Lieutenant General Alexus G. Grynkewich told reporters October 4, adding that the aircraft allowed the Air Force to “continue doing the missions we were doing up in Iraq and Syria and elsewhere in the region, and increase what we were doing in support of the Navy doing basically combat air patrols over the Straits of Hormuz.” “That increase in surface vessels combined with our airpower has deterred Iran from taking any actions against maritime shipping,” he added, in reference to the support received from the Navy and Marine Corps. 

In addition to tensions with Iran, the deployment to the Middle East came at a time of growing confrontation with Russian forces in Syrian airspace, with the United States continuing to occupy large oil rich areas of northeastern Syria and extract oil from there to help finance its military activities. Appropriation of Syrian oil, which has been widely condemned as a war crime equated with pillaging, has also served as a means to deny Damascus critical revenues needed for post war recovery, complementing American and broader Western efforts to impose maximum pressure on the country’s economy through very wide ranging economic warfare methods. The Russian Air Force from July used Su-35 fighters based in Syria to harass American drones violating Syrian airspace, including dropping flares in their paths which has reportedly seriously damaged American aircraft on at least one occasion. AFCENT commander Grynkewich indicated that Russian fighters’ giving a wider berth to American drones was at least partly a result of the presence of F-35s in the region, stating: “The flares being dropped on our MQ-9s, we don’t see that behaviour anymore.” 

While Russian Su-35s and other fighter classes remain in Syria, the American F-35 fleet has come under significant pressure due to major delays in and issues with production and very low availability rates among those aircraft already built, with the fighters thinly stretched between multiple theatres including the Arctic, East Asia and Eastern Europe. As the only post-fourth generation fighter class in production in the Western world, there remain multiple threats which only the F-35 is considered suitable for tackling, with examples including Russian S-400 air defence systems and Chinese J-20 fifth generation fighters. This has forced the U.S. and its allies to rely heavily on F-35s for deployments against major state adversaries across the world, with no other Western fighter class combining stealth, network centric warfare capabilities, cutting edge sensors and electronic warfare systems and an affordable operational cost in the same way.