Air Force General Downplays Possible Restrictions at Incirlik

An A-10 Thunderbolt II takes off from Incirlik Air Base, Turkey in July 2017. Since then, a squadron of the "Warthogs" has left the base for reassignment to Afghanistan. (US Air Force photo/Ramon Adelan)
An A-10 Thunderbolt II takes off from Incirlik Air Base, Turkey in July 2017. Since then, a squadron of the "Warthogs" has left the base for reassignment to Afghanistan. (US Air Force photo/Ramon Adelan)

Top brass is shying away from recent reports that tension is building between the U.S. and Turkey, which may lead to a noticeable shift in operations for U.S. warplanes at Incirlik Air Base.

The U.S. has a significant footprint at Incirlik. The military presence at the base, roughly 850 miles away from Russia, serves both as a deterrent and a transition point for Air Force aircraft moving to and from Iraq and Syria for missions against the Islamic State.

Officials this week told The Wall Street Journal the U.S. is scaling back combat operations over strained relations with Turkey, related to political obstacles in Syria. But the Air Force maintains its relationship with Turkish counterparts and its operations at the base remain consistent.

On a military-to-military basis, the relationship is firm, according to Gen. Tod Wolters, commander of U.S. Air Forces Europe-Africa Command.

"Certainly in the air domain with us and Turkey remains very, very strong," he told reporters during a phone call Thursday.

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"[Turkey is] a strong NATO partner, our aviation relationship is incredibly powerful, and I would characterize at the end of the day, all the activities that are ongoing in the air domain between us and Turkey to remain incredibly strong," Wolters said.

Turkey has grown agitated with the United States’ alliance with the Syrian Democratic Forces, a militia unit fighting ISIS that is predominantly made up of the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG. Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist organization. The SDF has, Turkey claims, also encroached too close to Turkey's borders.

Officials told the Journal that a recent removal of A-10 Thunderbolt II close-air-support planes signaled a change-up for U.S. operations at the NATO base, which could alter future missions there.

In January, a squadron of A-10Cs, first based at Incirlik, arrived at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, in support of the bolstered air campaign against the Taliban and other extremist forces.

U.S. European Command officials, meanwhile, say a new squadron of the ground-attack aircraft will likely be on its way to Turkey in the near future.

"The expeditionary squadron of A-10s that were deployed at Incirlik in support of Operation Inherent Resolve have returned back to Moody Air Force Base, Georgia, and another squadron has not yet been deployed to this location," EuCom officials told Military.com on Thursday.

"As the expeditionary units are not permanently assigned here, the aircraft located at Incirlik are always subject to change," officials said in an email. "There are no aircraft from Incirlik that have been relocated permanently at other USAFE bases.

"Depending on operational needs, a new squadron or mission may, or may not, deploy to Incirlik," EuCom officials said.

The move to Afghanistan did not happen on a whim, CentCom officials said.

"The decision to move A-10s to Kandahar was made in the fall of 2017, and the decision was one based on needed capabilities in Afghanistan," Capt. AnnMarie Annicelli said Wednesday in an email. "We needed air-to-ground capabilities, and the A-10 offered that."

The U.S. currently has KC-135 Stratotankers, MQ-9 Reaper drones and UH-60 Black Hawks at Incirlik.

During the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, U.S. operations halted and the airspace shut down, forcing CentCom to adjust its operations in the air war against ISIS.

The Air Force also had 12 F-15 Strike Eagles from the 48th Fighter Wing at the base in 2015, but the fighters were withdrawn less than two months later.

While EuCom on Thursday stressed that there have been "no significant impacts" to ongoing operations in Europe or global missions, how the U.S. chooses to proceed with the SDF situation remains to be seen.

Pentagon officials in recent weeks have argued the concerns over the SDF have created a distraction, and the two countries must return to their primary mission to defeat ISIS.

"We're going to continue to support the SDF in the fight against ISIS," Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said last month.

EuCom officials added, "Incirlik still serves as forward location that enables operational capabilities and provides the U.S. and NATO the strategic and operational breadth needed to conduct operations and assure our allies and partners."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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