The United States and its Coalition partners began bombing fighters from the Islamic State several months ago, and have now racked up thousands of alleged kills. However, while at least one plane has been lost to mechanical failure during operations, none have been lost to enemy fire. Now that the Coalition is deploying slower and potentially easier-to-hit aircraft such as the A-10 in order to provide close air support for allied ground troops, the question needs to be asked: does ISIS has the capabilities to shoot down Coalition aircraft? To answer this question, the most important issue which needs to be addressed is what anti-air weapons does the Islamic State operate, and how effective are they against modern warplanes.
Known ISIS Anti Air Missile Systems:
9K32 Strela 2 MANPADS Country of Origin: Soviet Union Maximum Height: 1,500m Obtained via: Captured SAA arms, looted from other rebels
9K38 Igla S MANPADS Country of Origin: Soviet Union/Russian Federation Maximum Height: 3,500m Obtained via: Captured Iraqi army equipment.
Known ISIS Anti Air Cannons:
ZU-23 Country of Origin: Soviet Union Maximum Height: 1,500m to 2,000m Obtained via: Captured SAA army equipment.
AZP S60 Country of Origin: Soviet Union Maximum Height: 4,000m Obtained via: Captured SAA army/Iraqi army equipment.
Looking at this list of weapons, two things are immediately obvious. Firstly, almost all of the weapons are very old, coming from heavily exported stocks produced in the Soviet Union and its successor states. Secondly, the maximum effective ceilings of these weapons systems are low when compared to more modern and capable systems.
— Military Studies (@ArmedResearch) October 8, 2014
— Memlik Pasha (@MemlikPasha) September 14, 2014
So what risk do these weapons pose to Coalition aircraft such as the F-18 and the F-22 strike fighters? Very little. These craft fly not just high, but also incredibly fast. This means that throughout the bulk of their flight they will be completely out of the range of ISIS’s AA weapons, and during attack runs, their speed will make them almost impossible to hit. Slower craft such as the Predator or Reaper drones are also not likely to be easily downed, because they fly at loiter altitudes in excess of 7,000m.
The most vulnerable aircraft which the Coalition is using against ISIS is also its most recently deployed. The A10 Warthog was redeployed in a rushed fashion to the region following gains by ISIS in Iraq’s Anbar Province. While this aircraft still generally flies at a high enough altitude to avoid most of ISIS’s weapons, during attack runs, due to its low speed, it is vulnerable, both to MANPADs and also anti-air cannon. It is worth noting however, that this aircraft can also take a severe beating, and can keep flying with an astonishing amount of airframe damage.
Outside of the Coalition, the craft being operated by other enemies of the Islamic State are comparatively more vulnerable to their anti-air weapons. In September this year, the Syrian air force lost an Su-25 jet carrying out airstrikes against the ISIS capital of Raqqa. Later, in October, the Iraqi army reportedly lost two helicopters to MANPADS fired by ISIS during battles around the city of Baiji.
Clearly, ISIS has a desire to down a Coalition jet, however, at this stage they would have to be almost impossibly lucky to down most of the aircraft used in bombing runs. While the A-10 is more vulnerable than the rest, it would still require a fair amount of luck for an inexperienced fighter to down one. In addition, the limited nature of ISIS’s AA weapons, especially its MANPADS, makes the possibility of a downed Coalition aircraft even less likely.