The US on Wednesday launched its first airstrikes by Turkey-based F-16 jets against Islamic State (IS) targets in Syria, marking a limited escalation of a yearlong air campaign that critics have called excessively cautious.
In a brief statement the Pentagon announced the F-16 strikes were launched from Incirlik air base in southern Turkey, but provided no details on the number or types of targets struck. It did not say how many of the six F-16s now based at Incirlik were used in the initial strikes.
Earlier this month the US began flying armed drones from Incirlik, but the F-16 flights add a new dimension to the air campaign, in part because of the added risk to pilots who might encounter Syrian or other air defenses.
Pentagon officials have said the main advantage of using Incirlik is its proximity to Islamic State targets in northern Syria, although a senior US defense official on Wednesday said that the F-16s may also be used on missions over Iraq. The official was not authorized to discuss F-16 mission details publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Most US aerial combat missions over Iraq and Syria are being flown from more distant air bases in Qatar and elsewhere in the Persian Gulf region, although the US is also flying F-16s from Muwaffaq Salti air base in Jordan.
The official said the Incirlik-based F-16s are equipped with surveillance and reconnaissance equipment in addition to weapons, and thus can be used to verify targeting information that may be provided by local Syrians or Iraqis cooperating with the US.
A total of six F-16s are operating from Incirlik; they are from the 31st Fighter Wing based at Aviano, Italy.
With the threat of Syrian air defenses in mind, the US military is considering how to reconfigure its network of combat search-and-rescue forces in the region, the senior defense official said.
The official indicated those forces are deemed sufficient for the moment, but might change. Other officials have said the US is also considering placing refueling aircraft at Incirlik in support of the F-16 mission.
After months of negotiations between Washington and Ankara, the Turkish government agreed late last month to permit the US to station aircraft at Incirlik in southern Turkey.
A Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs official in Ankara on Wednesday said that Turkey has not carried out its own airstrikes against the group formerly known as the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant recently because the US asked it to wait so that the two countries can coordinate efforts.
The official asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The senior US defense official in Washington said the two governments are working on a memorandum of understanding that would set the terms under which Turkish warplanes would be integrated into the US-led air campaign.
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