17 Oct 2014

Could IS really have its own air force?

Iraqi pilots are defecting and training Islamic State to fly MiG fighter planes, observers say. But how real is the prospect of an IS air force?

At first it sounds terrifying. Sunni pilots are supposedly defecting from the Iraqi army, claiming allegiance to Islamic State (IS) and teaching their members how to fly captured Syrian jets. Believe this line of inquiry, and Isis is on its way to building its own air force.

So says the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which claims the militant group has even gone so far as to fly some of its planes over the captured al-Jarah airbase east of Aleppo.”People saw the flights, they went up many times from the airport and they are flying in the skies outside the airport and coming back,” said its director Rami Abdulrahman, citing witnesses 45 miles south from the Turkish border.

But how credible is this? First, there is no official confirmation of these reports and the US Central Command remains resolute that it has not seen IS flying jets in Syria. A senior British defence source told Channel 4 News that the US has significant aerial surveillance around the al-Jarah airbase which is thought to have been a key target of US-led airstrikes in recent weeks.

By these conditions alone it would be extremely difficult for militants to restore Syrian aircraft and mobilise air training – let alone fly these planes on test missions, as the witnesses claim.

Channel 4 News also understands that the United Arab Emirates and Jordan have been assisting the US in military aerial activity in Northern Syria, making it entirely plausible that these planes that could have been mistaken for IS aircraft.

Future capabilities

That is not to say IS has no planes in its armoury. The group has undoubtedly grabbed vast amounts of hardware from their capture of military bases in Syria and Iraq. The Tabqa military base, captured near Raqqa in August was one of its biggest coups, and militants wasted no time posting pictures of a Russian MiG plane – broadly the same machinery reported by observers this week.

But it was widely believed that those planes were irrevocably damaged. And, by the looks of the unverified images posted online, they hardly seemed capable of taking to the skies very soon – if indeed at all.

That said, one of the main barriers to IS taking to the skies, has, until now, been the lack of expertise. Iraq had only a fledgling air force when the coalition withdrew in 2011 and the US has since agreed to bolster that with 36 F-16 multi-role jet fighters and 24 Apache helicopters.

Those orders have since been postponed, but Iraq has air veterans. Indeed the country once had of the mightiest air fleet in the region, with about a thousand planes, including Soviet MiGs and French Mirages, under Saddam Hussein.

Iraq and Syria have many challenges in the months ahead. One of them will be to ensure that disgruntled pilots do not end up defecting and bringing Isis closer to air power. For now, however, that possibility looks distinctly to be more heat than light.