An F-16 Fighting Falcon takes off from Joint Base Balad, Iraq, in this file photo. The U.S. will deploy anti-missile batteries and F-16 fighters to Jordan to bolster its defense capabilities in the face of a Syrian attack. (AP file photo)
The U.S. is sending F-16s to Jordan for an exercise, but they could stay longer to safeguard Jordan from violence in neighboring Syria.
The planes will take part in the upcoming exercise, Eager Lion, which runs until June 20, said Defense Department spokesman Air Force Lt. Col. Jack Miller. The U.S. also is sending a Patriot missile battery from Fort Hood, Texas.
Miller said a “detachment” of F-16s will take part in the exercise. But he would not say exactly how many aircraft are involved, other than it will be fewer than a squadron, which typically has between 18 and 24 aircraft.
He also would not specify where the F-16s are based, other than to say they are coming from a “forward-deployed location.”
Right now, the plan is for the F-16s and Patriot battery to remain in Jordan until the end of the exercise, unless the Jordanian government asks them to stay longer, Miller said.
“We will continue to consult closely with the government of Jordan on their security needs in light of the Syrian crisis,” Miller said. “If requested by the government of Jordan, we will consider extending the deployment of the F-16s and Patriot battery associated with Eager Lion.”
The State Department did not respond to questions about whether the Jordanian government had already asked for the F-16s to remain there after the exercise concludes.
“Eager Lion is just one example of the close partnership between the U.S. and Jordan,” he said in an email. “This year, more than 8,000 U.S. personnel will join 19 different nations to focus on a number of irregular warfare scenarios to enhance interoperability among allies and partners.”
Meanwhile, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has gained the upper hand against the disparate group of rebels he is fighting, including the al-Qaida-affiliated Al Nusra Front. Backed by Iran, Russia and thousands of Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon, forces loyal to the Assad regime recently recaptured the strategic city of Qusayr, drawing a stinging rebuke from the White House.
“Assad’s refusal to step aside is only prolonging the suffering of the Syrian people and postponing the inevitable,” the White House proclaimed in a June 5 statement. “Assad’s reign will end, and the Syrian people will build a new, democratic Syria without him. Those who have committed these heinous crimes against the Syrian people will be held accountable.”
But so far, the Obama administration has been cool to proposals to arm the rebels and create a no-fly zone in Syria.
Should the Air Force be tasked with conducting an operation in Syria, it would do so with 17 of its 54 fighter squadrons grounded due to automatic budget cuts that went into effect in March.
At a May 24 news conference, Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said budget cuts had driven the Air Force “over the readiness cliff” as calls for creating a no-fly zone in Syria were reaching their peak.
“New contingencies could be a problem for us, especially the longer this goes and the less training our people have compared to what we would normally require of them to be fully combat ready,” he said.