ISIS has reportedly taken to the air in captured Syrian Air Force fighter jets over Al-Jarrah Airport just outside Aleppo and ex-Iraqi Air Force fighter pilots are said to be at the controls. Not only have these pilots christened ISIS's entry into the air combat arena, but these Iraqi turned ISIS jet jocks are said to be in the process of training new pilots for the Islamic State.
Reuters reports that Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the watchdog group that has been closely monitoring activities around war-torn Aleppo, claims that eye witnesses corroborated their intelligence, seeing the planes take to the air multiple times above an ISIS-commandeered air base.
The aircraft spotted were said to have been MiG-21 Fishbeds and swing-winged MiG-23 Floggers, although L-39 Albatrosses trainers would be the easiest aircraft to get flying, especially for training purposes, and they are prevalent at almost every Syrian fighter jet base. From the eyewitness reports it sounds like the jets made quick local trips around the area, then flew the pattern above the base before landing.
So does ISIS pose a threat if indeed they are flying Assad's orphaned MiGs? Well, yes, anytime you have even a poorly trained pilot flying a high-performance fighter with a clear intent to damage their enemy as much as possible there is a threat. Even if the aircraft were used as high-end suicide bombs they could be devastating. Yet, the reality of ISIS flying combat aircraft over Syria complicates the coalition's mission there more than it endangers the pilots' lives involved in it.
Assad has clearly looked the other way when it comes to American and other allied aircraft operating over Syria, and in return coalition jets have not touched his military apparatus, including his air defenses and fighter aircraft. But now this could change inadvertently seeing that ISIS is potentially flying stolen Syrian Air Force aircraft, which makes identifying between friend and foe, for lack of a better term, much more complex.
For instance, if a MiG-23 is detected operating over Syria in an area near where US aircraft are transversing or operating does an allied fighter aircraft shoot it down without knowing if it belongs to Assad or ISIS? Does the MiG-23 have to turn into the allied aircraft and show hostile intent in order for allied pilots to be allowed to take it down? What about if ISIS uses these aircraft in an attempt to strike positions of Kurdish fighters, do we attack their air base in Aleppo in response or should we strike their base preemptively, even knowing that doing so would in effect expand the air campaign to the heart of the Syrian civil war?
This situation, if indeed entirely true, also complicates operations over Syria in that counter-air escorts may have to be assigned to assets that cannot defend themselves, such as loitering B-1 bombers. Our MQ-1 and MQ-9 Predator and Reaper drones are especially vulnerable to marauding combat jets as they do not possess the maneuverability or the armament to repulse an aerial attack from something as rudimentary as an ISIS-flown L-39 carrying a gun pod.
It will be interesting to see how this story pans out, for all we know that ISIS controlled air base could be a series of smoldering holes in the ground at this very moment. Still, one thing is certain, ISIS cannot be underestimated when it comes to their ability to re-purpose looted military hardware for their own means and, if they really have taken to the air over Aleppo, it would mark a whole new level of military sophistication for the feared group.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com