Reuters is reporting that Islamic State is training pilots to fly captured MIG 21 fighters in Syria.
IS overran the huge Syrian airbase in Taqba last August. The base contained more than 100 MIG 21’s along with a few MIG 29’s. MIG 21s are 1970’s-era aircraft and no match for the US air force, although they may eventually prove a challenge for the Syrians.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says that IS is using Iraqis who were in the Iraqi air force during the Saddam Hussein regime to train the pilots.
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.
The short duration flights could very well be a deliberate tactic to avoid detection by our satellites, although our AWAC coverage in the area should be able to see them. US Central Command is saying this is the first they’ve heard of the flights, which could be misdirection as they plan an attack on the base where the pilots are being trained.
As long as we have a couple of hundred planes in the region, any IS air force will not present a threat to us or our coalition partners. And it remains to be seen whether they could realistically challenge the Syrian air force. Knowing how to fly a plane is one thing. Becoming an effective combat pilot is quite another.