Here’s How Islamic State Could Shoot Down Allied Warplanes
Optical missile-guidance and improvised weapons could help militants defend against air attacks
On Dec. 24, a Jordanian air force F-16AM jet fighter crashed near the town of Ar Raqqa, the “capital” of the Islamic State militant group in Syria. The pilot ejected safely but militant fighters on the ground captured him.
Islamic State has been hunting allied aircraft for months—and initially it seemed that the caliphate had finally succeeded in shooting down an attacking plane.
But weirdly, the group’s propagandists had little to say about the F-16’s crash. Islamic State gathered a small crowd and celebrated inside Ar Raqqa, but there was no imagery of the militants actually shooting at the Jordanian plane. Islamic State usually marks any major achievement with a boastful video or photo.
Sure enough, U.S. Central Command eventually announced that the F-16 had crashed due to a technical failure. But that doesn’t mean the militants don’t still want to shoot down an American or allied plane—and won’t keep trying, even given serious limitations.
The fact that Islamic State doesn’t possess much in the way of air defenses has become an internal problem for the group. Apparently, it’s affecting fighters’ moral. In mid-December, Islamic State put to death nearly a hundred foreign fighters who had expressed their desire to quit the war and return home.
Since Islamic State invaded Iraq earlier this year, the group has succeeded in shooting down several Iraqi helicopters—and also claimed to have brought down a Predator drone near Meghdadiyeh in Iraq.
But none of these victories have had the impact that destroying a high-performance jet fighter would. Especially over Ar Raqqa, a highly symbolic town for Islamic State.
That’s because Islamic State needs to demonstrate it can fight back against the coalition’s relentless aerial bombardment. But that’s a serious technological challenge for a decidedly low-tech group.
Islamic state fighters frequently deploy shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles but, those small rockets can’t reach the altitude from which allied warplanes typically attack. The militants have also captured several medium-range surface-to-air batteries from forces loyal to Syrian president Bashar Al Assad.
A survey of captured bases from mid-2012 to today reveals that Islamic State has seized at least one SA-5 battery, three SA-3 batteries and five SA-2 batteries and possibly a single SA-6 launcher. A battery consists of several launchers, a set of radars and a command post.
It’s doubtful that the militants can actually use any of the medium surface-to-air missiles they have captured.
SA-2 and SA-5 launchers require fixed positions and are vulnerable to attack. The SA-2 also has a liquid fuel engine, which means it requires charging prior to launch. For its part, an SA-5 need a continuous lock on its target. These demands make the systems vulnerable in battle.
But the SA-3 and SA-6 are different. Both missiles are relatively small, easy to maintain—particularly the SA-3—and straightforward to fire. Which is not to say the militants can deploy them effectively.
Air defense systems include sensitive components that should be replaced periodically—a task beyond Islamic State’s means. There’s also evidence that Syrian forces sabotaged at least some of the SAMs before abandoning them.
While the jihadists may have captured spare parts and even some technical manuals, repairing such sophisticated systems would require intensive training and a high level of education. True, Islamic State enjoys the support of many former Iraqi army soldiers, some of whom might have air-defense experience. But then there are other limitations.
Even if Islamic State got its air defenses in working order, the moment the group switches on its early warning radars, allied electronic surveillance would pick up the signal from hundreds of miles away. U.S. Air Force F-22s and Navy EA-18Gs stand ready to attack any radars or SAMs that threaten allied planes.
As a workaround, Islamic State could send out human spotters to visually track incoming planes. Syrian rebels have been doing that for years.
Cued by visual spotting, SA-3 and SA-6 batteries could launch missiles within line of sight and without early warning radars. The SA-3 was one of the first Soviet air-defense systems with optical guidance.
Besides SA-3s and SA-6s, Islamic State can use air-to-air missiles it captured from different air bases to improvise surface-to-air missiles capable of targeting planes at high altitude.
Serbian forces did something similar during the Kosovo war using R-73 and R-60 missiles. The Serbs added 122-millimeter Grad rockets to boost the missiles’ range.
If Islamic State deployed optically-guided SAMs and improvised other defenses—and took care to move these systems frequently in order to evade detection—the militants might have a chance of shooting down an attacking jet and scoring a huge propaganda victory.
But of course, there’s one easy way the coalition could sidestep the problem. It could send in more drones. Because nobody cares if a drone gets shot down.