Islamic State training pilots to fly captured MIGs
Last August, I reported on the Islamic State's capture of a huge air base in Syria at Tabqa. At the time, I speculated that it was possible IS would be able to train pilots to fly the planes, thus giving them an air arm.
Does Islamic State now have an air force? According to Wikipedia, Tabqa air base has 12 squadrons of MIG-21's based there - both combat aircraft and trainers. While the MIG-21 is an ancient air craft and no match for the US Air Force or most air forces in the region, it's a serviceable platform to use against Iraq.
Do they have the pilots, the ground crews, and the fuel to use them? No one knows. The IS may be fanatics, but they are also resourceful. If they don't have the personnel, they can buy people to train them.
Apparently, that's just what IS has done.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports that former Iraqi pilots are training IS fighters to fly the MIGs.
Iraqi pilots who have joined Islamic State in Syria are training members of the group to fly in three captured fighter jets, a group monitoring the war said on Friday, saying it was the first time the militant group had taken to the air.
The group, which has seized swathes of land in Syria and Iraq, has been flying the planes over the captured al-Jarrah military airport east of Aleppo, said Rami Abdulrahman, who runs the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Reuters was not immediately able to verify the report and U.S. Central Command said it was not aware of Islamic State flying jets in Syria.
U.S-led forces are bombing Islamic State bases in Syria and Iraq. The group has regularly used weaponry captured from the Syrian and Iraqi armies and has overrun several military bases but, if the report is confirmed, this would be the first time it has been able to pilot warplanes.
"They have trainers, Iraqi officers who were pilots before for (former Iraqi president) Saddam Hussein," Abdulrahman said.
"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," he said, citing witnesses in northern Aleppo province near the base, which is 70 km (45 miles) south of the Turkish border.
Witnesses reported the flights were at a low altitude and only lasted five to 10 minutes before landing, the Observatory said. It was not possible to reach the Syrian government for comment and state media did not mention the report.
It was not clear whether the jets were equipped with weaponry or whether the pilots could fly longer distances in the planes, which witnesses said appeared to be MiG 21 or MiG 23 models captured from the Syrian military.
As I mention in my report from August, the MIG 21 is an ancient platform and would be no match for coalition jets. But against the Iraqis, whose equipment isn't much better, they may prove to be a problem.
You would hope we could sniff out where these jets are based and launch a few strikes to destroy them. Otherwise, we better get used to the idea of IS possessing an air force capable of combat operations against the Iraqis.