WASHINGTON — The gruesome killing of a Jordanian pilot who had crashed in Islamic State territory laid bare a problem of the U.S.-led coalition — there’s no sure way to rescue an airman who’s down behind enemy lines. Now, in response, the U.S. has moved search-and-rescue aircraft closer to the battlefield, defense officials said Thursday.
U.S. pilots are flying missions over Syria daily from bases in the region, including from Qatar, and partner nations, including Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, are flying less often. The United Arab Emirates suspended its participation in airstrikes in December after the Jordanian pilot was captured, but it may reconsider after having given its aircrews extra training, two officials said.
The risk of capture is unavoidable in air combat missions anywhere. The danger is arguably greater for pilots flying over Syria with no U.S. troops nearby, even though the Islamic State has a very limited ability to shoot down planes.
The importance of finding the pilot before he is captured was highlighted by the video showing Islamic State militants burning Jordanian Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh alive in a cage.
The U.S. has flown nearly 900 combat missions over Iraq since last August and more than 900 over Syria since September — not to mention hundreds of reconnaissance and other support missions — without a single loss. Coalition pilots have flown more than 350 airstrike missions over Iraq and 80 or more over Syria, with al-Kaseasbeh the only casualty so far.
Nonetheless, three defense officials said that in recent days the U.S. has moved search-and-rescue aircraft into northern Iraq to shorten the response time in the event of another pilot loss. Al-Kaseasbeh’s plane went down in December and he was quickly captured by Islamic State fighters before U.S. rescue crews could reach him.
The three officials spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record about a movement of rescue crews that has not been announced.
“It’s standard practice whenever U.S. aircraft are flying over enemy airspace that there’s a search-and-rescue package ready to go,” said Peter Mansoor, a retired Army colonel who served in the Iraq war. But success is hardly sure, particularly when an enemy ground force can quickly grab the pilot.
That was the case with al-Kaseasbeh, whose F-16 crashed over Syria in December. He parachuted into a lake and was quickly captured, taken to an unknown location and held until he was killed on Jan. 3. U.S. officials have said an airborne search was launched after the pilot went down, but he stood no chance of evading capture.
“Given that we now know that captured pilots are likely to be tortured and killed, we’ve taken another look at our search-and-rescue package and probably ramped it up and gotten it closer to the scene of potential action,” Mansoor said in a telephone interview.
Combat missions also are being flown daily over portions of Iraq, mainly in the north and west. The majority are flown by American pilots, though France, Belgium, Britain, the Netherlands, Australia, Canada and Denmark also are flying missions.
On Thursday the U.S. military said in its daily report on airstrikes that coalition planes conducted three strikes in Syria overnight Wednesday and nine in Iraq.
The U.S. typically keeps a tight lid on its combat search-and-rescue capabilities in war zones. The missions usually are led by the Air Force’s pararescue jumpers, or PJs, who undergo specialized training to be able to find, rescue and provide medical treatment to aircrew members who go down behind enemy lines or at sea.
Although designed to grab a downed pilot before he is captured, teams are trained in techniques for retaking a captured pilot under certain circumstances, a combat rescue officer said Thursday in a telephone interview. The officer, with 13 years of experience in his career field, spoke only on condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Pentagon.
Search-and-rescue aircraft typically do not accompany combat aircraft into battle, although they do in some higher-risk cases, the officer said. Teams generally stand on alert some distance from the front lines.
U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for the military campaign in Iraq and Syria, has not said publicly where it has situated search-and-rescue aircraft crews, which must be supported by an array of maintenance, logistics and communications units. At least one outfit is based in Kuwait, officials said.
As for the United Arab Emirates’ decision to stop launching airstrikes, the U.S. has focused instead on Jordan’s determination to step up the fight against the Islamic State. Jordan’s military said Thursday that it had launched new strikes in Syria. U.S. officials said they were carried out in coordination with American support planes and as part of the normal process directed by coalition commanders.
Meanwhile, the White House said President Barack Obama was poised to ask Congress for new authority to use U.S. military force against Islamic State militants in both Iraq and Syria. Obama, at the National Prayer Breakfast, declared, “No god condones terror.”
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said this week that the U.S. has “taken the necessary precautions to do everything we can to try to make that very dangerous mission as safe as possible for American fighter pilots who are putting themselves in harm’s way.”
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