There is a good chance that we will wake up to a very different anti-ISIS campaign over the skies of Syria in the coming days. Following the gruesome execution of their downed F-16 pilot, Jordan, led by its Special Forces impresario King, says it will bring 'every weapon it has' down on ISIS. This could include the soldier-King himself, as rumors swirl that he may fly in extended air raids.
For King Abdullah, the gruesome death of one of his prized F-16 Viper pilots is extremely personal. Why? Because he is a military pilot and special operations officer himself and the cadre of Royal Jordanian Air Force pilots is remarkably small. Additionally, King Abdullah has also likened the downed Viper pilot to his own son, meeting with the pilots father personally during the crisis.
Before Monday's horrific imagery was released of Lt. Moaz al-Kassasbeh being burned alive in a cage, Jordan was frantically attempting a prisoner exchange for him. Once proof of life was demanded by Jordanian negotiators the whole affair fell apart and the well-produced execution film surfaced. Some analysts say that the pilot was most likely killed weeks ago. Jordan quickly executed both prisoners that were supposed to be part of the exchange as a reaction to the video.
King Abdullah was in the U.S. yesterday meeting with the President and Congress. His aim and resolve appeared to be very clear and apparently he has a simple plan to exact revenge — a full scale broadside against ISIS interests in Syria. Evoking Clint Eastwood's character in the memorable western Unforgiven, Abdullah was said to have quoted the movie directly as a way to convey his intended response to the execution. According to multiple news sites, Representative Duncan Hunter, himself a Marine Veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom,was quoted as describing the King's statements after leaving a closed door meeting with him:
"He said there is going to be retribution like ISIS hasn't seen... He mentioned Unforgiven and he mentioned Clint Eastwood, and he actually quoted a part of the movie... He's angry... They're starting more sorties tomorrow than they've ever had. They're starting tomorrow... The only problem we're going to have is running out of fuel and bullets.... He's ready to get it on. He really is. It reminded me of how we were after 9/11."
Although the King's exact quote has not been disclosed, one of Eastwood's character's most famous quotes in the film is:
Any man I see out there, I'm gonna kill him. Any son of a bitch takes a shot at me, I'm not only going to kill him, I'm going to kill his wife and all his friends and burn his damn house down.
Among other soaring statements made by King Abdullah, such as saying 'the Earth will shake' and Jordan will now wage a 'relentless war' until they 'run out of bullets' against ISIS, it is not clear if Jordan plans on putting some sort of total war into effect over ISIS held territory in Syria. In order to make even just a more robust air campaign a reality, King Abdullah is seeking more aid from Washington of the explosive kind, as in fuel and bomb stocks, along with assorted other weapons and spare parts. Aid to Jordan, which is seen as an anchor-state ally in the region, has already been increased to $1B this year.
How much sustained might Jordan is capable of bringing to bear on ISIS, even with unlimited fuel, bomb and spare parts stocks potentially provided by the U.S., is debatable. In total, Jordan has around 75 F-16s, although about a dozen of these are older F-16A/Bs in need of an upgrade and are mainly used for training and basic air defense. In addition, Jordan has about two dozen F-5E/Fs Tigers IIs in service, although these aircraft are mainly used for fighter lead-in training and daytime air defense as they are not equipped to employ precision guided munitions. Jordan also has a pair of very capable AC-235 gunships that work in conjunction with the country's very well-trained and well-equipped Special Forces units.
Finally, Jordan has 25 U.S. Army surplus AH-1F Cobra attack helicopters, although their range and susceptibility to anti-aircraft fire, especially shoulder-fired heat-seeking missiles, makes them an unlikely candidate for striking at the heart of ISIS in Raqqa.
So could Jordan increase its downrange effects against ISIS to a crippling point from the air alone? Not necessarily and there may not be enough 'fixed' targets available to go after if Jordan keeps to the American coalition's rules of engagement. If they do not, and change their goal to widespread bombing, including non-precision 'dumb bombing' against any 'suspected' ISIS targets, then they certainly could bring widespread ruin to Raqqa over time.
Such a plan would end up being counter-productive though as it would bring similar terror and destruction to innocents as ISIS brings, just from the air instead of the ground. International 'optics' would also be terrible if Jordan were to execute such a strategy and it is highly unlikely the U.S. would support it as it would endanger the already shaky and somewhat ineffective air campaign coalition in place. A hybrid option would be for Jordan to focused its air power on making Raqqa unlivable by knocking out all of its power, water and sewer capabilities. This would still result in strife for innocent civilians, but it would do so over time. The goal would be to make living in the ISIS stronghold unbearable, and it would turn the city into a free-fire zone like other embattled metropolitan areas that now now lay in ruin around Syria after years of civil war.
So yes, Jordan can greatly increase its sortie rate from a handful of flights a day to dozens for for a stretch of time, which will have an impressive effect maybe for the first few days, but without clear goals and a change in rules of engagement, those flights might prove wasteful. This reality opens up the question of some sort of Jordanian ground operation against ISIS. Once again, such an offensive is doubtful as the distance from Jordan's northern most territory to ISIS held territory is about 150 miles. In other words, it is not a matter of just rolling armor and troops across the border and engagement ISIS elements in combat.
Distance aside, Jordan does have a capable yet relatively small Army (about 160,000 troops including reservists which make up about one third of the total force) equipped with a mix of gear including everything from fairly advanced Challenger main battle tanks, known as the 'Al Hussein' locally, to an array of older American-made armored personnel carriers. Still, if Jordan were to actually attempt a traditional ground operation, which is highly unlikely, it would require the approval and support of the Assad government in Syria, and still, logistics would be a major problem and causalities would likely be unacceptable with having forward elements' supply lines cut off being a very real possibility.
This leaves Jordan's very capable special operations community as a possible choice to exact pinpoint operations against ISIS elements in their own backyards. Going after ISIS in Raqqa would stretch Jordan's special operations aviation force to their range limits, but it is possible and it may have already happened. If Jordan were to acquire an in-Syria forward arming and refueling point, one that had some level of security, once again most likely at the approval of the Assad Government, these raids could be sustained over time with a higher chance of success. Still, such bold moves into an incredibly hostile environment dense with enemy combatants would undoubtedly result in large amounts of Jordanian casualties over time, which at this point may be a risk King Abdullah is willing to take.
In the end, even if King Abdullah straps into the back seat of an F-16 and goes on missions daily against ISIS himself, along with his entire air force and special operations community, doing so will only degrade and disperse the terror state's capabilities, it will not remove ISIS from the region as a military force entirely. Under the current situation, which is something akin to a coalition-based counter-insurgency and containment operation, that is just about the best that can be expected. This may actually be entirely acceptable for King Abdullah, who is facing strong calls for revenge back at home. Yet it will take a grander, more aggressive and riskier strategy, with new tactics, greater commitment, as well as many more regional players coming together to completely downgrade ISIS from a standing military power to just another extremist ideology in a region full of them. Such a change in strategy and vision could only effectively occur at direction of the Obama Administration, and that seems like a very unlikely possibility.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com