Air Force F-15 fighter jets are patrolling the Persian Gulf with cluster bombs to counter Iran's gunboat swarms

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U.S. Air Force fighter jets are patrolling the Persian Gulf, and they appear to be carrying guided cluster munitions capable of tearing apart Iranian swarm boats.

"F-15E Strike Eagles from the 336th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron are flying air operations in support of maritime surface warfare," the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing revealed this week, explaining that "their role is to conduct combat air patrol missions over the Arabian Gulf and provide aerial escorts of naval vessels as they traverse the Strait of Hormuz."

The F-15E, which can reportedly carry almost any air-to-surface weapon in the Air Force arsenal, is a dual-role fighter able to carry out both air-to-air and air-to-ground missions.

Looking at the accompanying photos, Joseph Trevithick, a writer for The War Zone, noticed that the F-15s were carrying cluster munitions. It is unclear what type of munitions the aircraft are flying with, but given their mission is focused on maritime security, it would make sense that the submunitions contained within are one of two suited to a strike on Iran's swarm boats.

An F-15E Strike Eagle assigned to the 336th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron refuels from a KC-10 Extender June 27, 2019( U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Erin Piazza)

The F-15s in the photos appear to be carrying Wind Corrected Munitions Dispensers, a GPS-guided canister that can be loaded with different submunitions depending on the mission type, The War Zone reports, noting that the aircraft are likely carrying either the CBU-103/B loaded with 202 BLU-97/B Combined Effect Bomblets or the CBU-105/B filled with ten BLU-108/B Sensor Fuzed Munitions.

The submunitions contain four separate warheads with their own independent sensors to detect and eliminate targets, and would be well suited to targeting the small Iranian gunboats that have been harassing commercial vessels.

An F-15E Strike Eagle sits while waiting for an upcoming mission July 15, 2019, at Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates(U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Chris Thornbury)

Cluster munitions, while controversial, allow the user to eliminate multiple targets with one bomb. A single CBU-105, for instance, could theoretically achieve 40 individual kills against an incoming small boat force. The US military had initially planned to stop using cluster munitions, but these plans were put on hold until suitable alternatives could be developed.

The F-15E Strike Eagles with the 336th EFS currently assigned to Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates carry a "robust assortment of air-to-ground munitions" and fly "with various configurations to ensure an ability to respond effectively to dynamic situations," the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing explained.

These fighters are "currently conducting Surface Combat Air Patrol (SuCAP) operations to ensure free and open maritime commerce in the region."

An F-15E Strike Eagle weapons load crew team prepares munitions July 15, 2019, at Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates(U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Chris Thornbury)

Last month, Iranian gunboats attempted to seize the British tanker "British Heritage," but the Royal Navy frigate HMS Montrose intervened, turning its guns on the Iranian vessels. One week later, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps seized the UK-flagged tanker Stena Impero, an unguarded vessel which Iran has not yet released.

The U.S. has also accused Iran of attacking commercial vessels in the region with limpet mines, as well as targeting and, in one case, shooting down U.S. unmanned air assets.

Western countries have not yet come to a consensus about how they should deal with the serious threat posed by Iranian forces in the region.

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