The U.S. Central Command has seen no evidence that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL) terrorist group is operating its own warplanes.
“We don’t have any operational reporting of ISIL flying jets in support of ISIL’s activity on the ground. And so I cannot confirm that,” U.S. Army Gen. Lloyd Austin told reporters during a Friday briefing at the Pentagon.
“And to the degree that pilots may have defected and joined the ranks of ISIL, I don’t have any information on that either.”
The Syrian Observatory on Human Rights (SOHR), which has been tracking the conflict in Syria, has claimed that ISIS has gained access to three Soviet-built fighters including Mikoyan MiG-21 Fishbed and MiG-23 Flogger aircraft. If ISIS were operating its own fleet of fighters, it would be an unprecedented feat for such a group.
According to the SOHR, the fighters are crewed by defectors from the Iraq or possibly by newly trained ISIS terrorists.
“Officers from the Iraqi dissolved army, who are also members in the Islamic State Organization, have overseen the training of some militants in order to be able to lead these aircrafts,” reads a SOHR report.
“The training courses are given in the airbase of al Jarrah known by Kshish airbase too. This airbase located in the eastern countryside of Aleppo and considered the most important camp for IS [Islamic State] in Syria.”
However, it is very unlikely that the terrorist group has the resources to effectively operate the warplanes. Operating any warplane requires trained aircrew and support troops and maintenance infrastructure—which ISIS likely does not possess.
Nor is training new aircrew with minimal support infrastructure an easy feat—even with rugged Soviet-build hardware. It normally takes about two years to properly train a fighter pilot to a minimal level of proficiency. However, it might be possible that the terrorists maybe training to a level just enough to use the aircraft as suicide weapons—but even that is highly unlikely.
Nonetheless, the SOHR report cited eyewitnesses who observed the aircraft operating from the airfield at al Jarrah.
According, to those witnesses, the fighters were operating at low altitude. Sources “informed SOHR activists that IS [Islamic State] fighters seized these aircrafts after taking control over the military airports affiliated to the regime forces in Aleppo and al Raqqa provinces,” reads the SOHR report.
“The resources have not confirmed whether IS [Islamic State] owns missiles for this aircrafts or not.”