This story has been updated with additional information from AFCENT.
The Air Force now has five squadrons of fighter jets deployed to at least three different countries in the Middle East.
F-15E Strike Eagles with the 494th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, known as the Mighty Black Panthers, deployed early last month from RAF Lakenheath in England to Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia, U.S. Air Forces Central Command said in a Jan. 9 release. The 494th is part of the 48th Fighter Wing at Lakenheath.
Those fighters bolstered the Air Force’s fighter presence in the Middle East, joining the F-16 Fighting Falcons of the 555th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, and the advanced F-35A Lightning IIs of the 34th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron at Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates.
F-16s with the 79th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, deployed from Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina, are also at Al Dhafra. They fall under the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing.
And F-15E Strike Eagles with the 389th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, deployed from Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho, are also deployed to an undisclosed location in the CENTCOM area of responsibility, AFCENT said. That squadron falls under the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing.
The 555th, known as the Triple Nickel and based out of Aviano Air Base in Italy, and the 34th, deployed from Hill Air Force Base in Utah, both deployed last November. AFCENT spokesman Maj. Tristan Hinderliter said in an email Tuesday that both squadrons are still deployed. Hinderliter declined to say when the squadrons are scheduled to return home, and said it is AFCENT policy to not discuss the timing of aircraft rotations in advance.
Another F-35 squadron from Hill is expected to replace the 34th after it returns to Utah, Hinderliter said. The 34th deployed about two weeks after the 4th Fighter Squadron, which is also based at Hill, returned from its six-month deployment — the first F-35A combat deployment in Air Force history.
The 494th’s F-15Es were last deployed to the Middle East in October 2019, when they arrived at Al Dhafra.
There are also A-10 Warthogs with the 74th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, deployed from Moody Air Force Base in Georgia, at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, AFCENT said. They fall under the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing.
There are currently no bombers based in the area of responsibility, AFCENT said.
The Air Force is keeping a variety of strike aircraft in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility not only to continue bombing the Taliban in Afghanistan and Islamic State remnants, but also to deter Iran from further aggression. Tensions between the United States and Iran increased dramatically at the beginning of the year, following a rocket attack on a military installation in Iraq — believed to be carried out by an Iran-backed militia — that killed a U.S. contractor and wounded four American troops.
The U.S. responded by killing top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in an airstrike in Iraq, which brought the nations to the brink of conflict. But after an Iranian ballistic missile attack on two Iraqi bases housing U.S. troops, which left dozens of troops with concussions, the two nations de-escalated.
Stephen Losey covers leadership and personnel issues as the senior reporter for Air Force Times. He comes from an Air Force family, and his investigative reports have won awards from the Society of Professional Journalists. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover Air Force operations against the Islamic State.