The U.S. is withdrawing a dozen F-15 fighters from the key Turkish air base of Incirlik, less than two months after their arrival.
The fighters — six F-15Cs from the 48th Fighter Wing and six F-15Es from the 48th Fighter Wing — will be returning to Europe. The U.S. will still maintain a dozen A-10 Warthog close-air support fighters at the base, located about 100 miles from the border with Syria.
The six F-15Cs from the 48th Fighter Wing arrived at Incirlik on Nov. 6 to help protect Turkish airspace.
“The F-15C deployment to Incirlik Air Base was always intended to be of short duration and serve not only as an immediate response to a request from the Turkish government, but as an exercise of our ability to deploy aircraft on short notice to Turkey,” said Capt. Thomas Barger, a spokesman for U.S. Air Forces in Europe. “Turkey is fully capable of patrolling and protecting its own airspace.”
The F-15E mission was also a temporary use of U.S. European-based forces to augment the counter-ISIL [Islamic State] mission from Incirlik Air Base, Barger said in an email.
Barger declined to say whether the 12 F-15s might be replaced by other aircraft.
“However, one of the advantages of having European-based forces is that they provide our nation with a quick response option when needed, as this temporary deployment clearly proved,” he said.
When the F-15s’ arrival was first announced, Pentagon officials emphasized having the capability located so close to Syria was vital for the fight against the Islamic State, commonly known as ISIS or ISIL. However, on Wednesday, Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis downplayed the removal of the fighters, noting that capability would still be in Europe and able to flow down if necessary.
He also noted that increased presence from European allies, including British and French jets that have begun striking in Syria, means the Pentagon does not expect a capability gap. However, Davis would not rule out another wave of American jets coming through the Turkish base.
"It's still absolutely an option," Davis said of another rotation to replace the F-15s.
Davis also said this move was planned before Monday's visit to the Pentagon by President Obama.
The F-15 deployment was required by the government of Turkey to "demonstrate our ability to quickly deploy there assets into Turkey to conduct combat air patrol missions to help defend Turkish air sovereignty," Davis said. "They've done that and they still maintain the capability to very quickly go back if they need to."
The move was announced the day after Secretary of Defense Ash Carter visited the base, but Davis said the timing was coincidental. Carter did not have a high-level sitdown with Turkish officials during his visit, part of a wider tour of the region as the US seeks to bolster local input on the anti-ISIS campaign.
While the Pentagon has said the F-15Cs were not flying regular operations, defense watchers also noted the C models greatly enhanced the air-to-air capabilities of the US and Turkish assets as they operate in close proximity to Russian fighters above Syrian airspace. That concern took on added weight after a Nov. 24 intercept and shootdown of a Russian Su-24 in Turkish airspace by Turkish F-16s.
When asked about the fallout from the shootdown, Air Force Chief of Staff told reporters on Tuesday, “Don’t cross somebody’s border without permission.”
“Any time there are a number of forces operating in close proximity, there is the potential for errors and mistakes and bad things to happen,” Welsh said at Tuesday’s news conference at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia. “It’s an ugly environment any time you are conducting combat operations. People must coordinate and cooperate to do it properly.”