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Madhatters build on legacy of accomplishment

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Joshua Kleinholz
  • 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs

Ambiguity, discipline, and innovation—three words used by the 492nd Expeditionary Fighter Squadron commander, Lt. Col. Jeremy Renken to summarize his squadron’s pivotal role in Operation Inherent Resolve.


Having already added to their history of combat excellence beating back Islamic State defensive lines in Iraq during a previous deployment in 2015, the F-15E Strike Eagles of the 492nd “Madhatters” spun up once again, ready to carry the load for Coalition forces with an increasing need for precision airpower. However, things got a bit more interesting immediately upon arrival in early June.  


On the morning of April 7, Tomahawk missiles were launched off the deck of the USS Ross and the USS Porter targeting Shayrat Air Base in Syria. A direct response to chemical attacks on civilians by the Syrian government just days before, the strike stirred the geopolitical pot and added a new level of complexity to the Madhatter mission.


“The dynamics within our area of responsibility completely changed at that point in time,” said one 492nd EFS aircrew member. “Instead of focusing all of our mission sets on close-air support, we switched to flying 45 percent of our sorties providing defensive counter-air for coalition forces on the ground.”


Though the Coalition forces throughout Southwest Asia had their sights set squarely on eliminating the last remaining major ISIS stronghold in Raqqa, encounters with other world powers seeking influence in the region were inevitable. Aircrews, assisted by dedicated intelligence professionals, went to exhaustive lengths to identify and destroy targets, making meticulous efforts to mitigate unnecessary structural damage and human loss. As Coalition forces closed in on Raqqa and the battlespace was condensed, aircrews exhibited extraordinary discipline in countering sometimes-aggressive Russian and Syrian air strategies. Intense situations required immense patience and situational awareness—balancing the mandate to protect Coalition forces on the ground with a strong reluctance to take shots that could spark an international crisis.


“Our aircrews were quite literally watching geopolitics play out in real time,” said Renken. “I think if we look at what happened here through the lens of history, people will see that this was a turning point.”


On two occasions, these tensions created situations which forced 492nd EFS aircrews into direct air-to-air conflict.


On June 8, a 492nd EFS aircrew spotted something peculiar. The remotely piloted aircraft—one of hundreds being flown over the region at any given time—was armed with two missiles and had taken an aggressive flight path closing in on a group of friendly forces. Quickly running out of fuel, the F-15E aircrew passed along information on the drone and waited to see if non-kinetic effects would be effective in dealing with the threat.


“We ended air refueling as soon as we heard about the shot,” said Renken. “We returned as quickly as possible and identified that the drone—which had two missiles before—now had one.”


Though the strike caused no casualties, the requirements for identifying hostile intent had been met. The aircrew targeted the drone and made preparations to shoot it down when the Russians showed up.


“They had locked on to us, and that was pretty atypical of the kind of posture we try to keep with each other,” said Renken. “Their presence also complicated the decision to shoot because we needed to shoot in a manner that wouldn’t appear escalatory with them.”


Long minutes of waiting followed as the aircrew monitored the movements of the drone. Anxiously awaiting clearance to shoot, they wondered about the intentions of the Russian fighters targeting them nearby. But when the drone made another aggressive turn toward the Coalition outpost, the aircrew made the final decision to strike.


The June 8 shoot-down of the pro- Syrian regime forces controlled RPA marked the first ever confrontation between manned and unmanned aerial platforms in any conflict. It was also the Air Force’s first air-to-air kill during Operation Inherent Resolve. Lessons learned from the ordeal proved useful just 12 days later when another Madhatter aircrew shot down a second pro-Syrian regime drone after it advanced on Coalition forces in Southern Syria. In both cases, and in a number of situations the squadron faced throughout the remainder of the deployment, aircrews reinforced the importance of placing trust in the operator.


“Doing this right requires us to put a great deal of responsibility in the hands of the crews on scene,’’ said Renken. “They’re often the only ones who have the fidelity to make decisions based on very fluid and nuanced indications.”


Equipped with the intelligence, empowered to make decisions, and trained to execute at a high level, the aircrews of the 492nd went on to fly more than 2,000 sorties for a total of 11,000 flight hours. They dropped 4,492 bombs, providing significant contributions to the Coalition’s efforts to drive ISIS out of Mosul, Tal Afar, Hawija, and numerous other strongholds throughout the Euphrates River valley. The Islamic State’s declared capital, Raqqa, Syria, was 85 percent cleared during the Madhatters’ time in the region, and fell to Coalition forces just days after their departure.


“I want our Airmen coming away from this understanding how important their efforts were in the greater history of this region,” said Renken. “This is a time when the power of nation states was contested by an irregular force, and we were able to bring together a Coalition to decisively roll them back. We’ve given the people of Iraq and Syria new options for forging a future together.”