Missiles of ISIS may pose peril for aircrews
BAGHDAD: From the battlefield near Baiji, an Islamic State jihadist fired a heat-seeking missile and blew an Iraqi Army Mi-35M attack helicopter out of the sky this month, killing its two crew members.
Days later, the Islamic State released a chilling series of images from a video purporting to capture the attack in northern Iraq: a jihadist hiding behind a wall with a Chinese-made missile launcher balanced on his shoulder; the missile blasting from the tube, its contrail swooping upward as it tracked its target; the fiery impact and the wreckage on a rural road.
The helicopter was one of several Iraqi military helicopters that the militants claim to have shot down this year, and the strongest evidence yet that Islamic State fighters in Iraq are using advanced surface-to-air missile systems that pose a serious threat to aircraft flown by Iraq and the American-led coalition.
As the counteroffensive against the Islamic State enters a more aggressive phase in Iraq, allied airstrikes will also intensify. American officials say they fully expect that the push will bring out more proof of the jihadists’ antiaircraft abilities, with potentially serious consequences for how the Iraqis and their coalition partners wage their war.
“Based on past conflicts,” said one senior American military official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss delicate intelligence assessments, the missiles “are game changers out there.”
The proliferation of antiaircraft weaponry has also heightened concerns about the vulnerability of Iraq’s airports, particularly Baghdad International Airport, the country’s most important transportation hub and a lifeline for military supplies and reinforcements to Iraq.
Signaling its intent to challenge American supremacy in the skies, the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, recently published an online guide describing how to use shoulder-fired missiles to shoot down an Apache attack helicopter, one of the most fearsome weapons in the United States Army’s conventional arsenal.
“Choosing the launching spot: Preferably somewhere high,” the guide says in Arabic. “The roof of a building or a hill with a solid surface to prevent the appearance of dust following launching.”
The authors urged “strong confidence in God and composure,” and certainty “that this operation will cause a disaster to the foes and destroy their arrogance.”
The United States has stationed about a half-dozen Apaches at Baghdad International Airport, but they have been used only rarely in the two-and-a-half-month-old aerial campaign against the Islamic State, in part because of worries about their vulnerability to ground fire and because of a lack of American search-and-rescue teams in Iraq that could respond to downed aircrews. The concerns also reflect the White House’s insistence on limiting the number of American troops in Iraq and their exposure to hostile fire.
This month, Apaches entered the battle for the first time, in coordination with United States Air Force jets, to carry out four airstrikes on a large Islamic State force northeast of Falluja, in the sprawling desert and agricultural province of Anbar. The militants have established several strongholds there, and have continued to gain ground there against Iraq’s security forces in recent weeks.
Now, though, the Iraqi military is beginning to mount larger and more complex efforts around the country to retake territory from the Islamic State, including a counteroffensive that began a week and a half ago to break the militants’ stranglehold on a key refinery in Baiji, north of Baghdad. The new phase will mean an increase in the frequency of combat missions by coalition aircraft, and will likely demand a greater use of lower-flying American attack helicopters and gunships, which have important advantages in urban warfare.
Since much of the most difficult fighting in the coming months is expected to unfold in the towns and cities of Anbar, American generals may be inclined to order more Apaches to support Iraqi ground troops. They may also make greater use of AC-130 gunships, a lumbering, propeller-driven plane bristling with cannons that circles at altitudes at the outer limits of some shoulder-fired missiles.
As Iraqi and American officials weigh the added risk to their aircrews and, potentially, to civilian aircraft, they are particularly concerned about the threat of shoulder-fired heat-seeking missiles, commonly known as Manpads, short for Man-Portable Air Defense Systems.
Syrian rebels have amassed multiple Manpad models since 2012, and the Islamic State has generally had little trouble acquiring any weapon used by Syrian rebels either through purchase or capture, military analysts say. Though the Pentagon’s Central Command acknowledges this concern, it said it had no conclusive evidence yet that the Islamic State had such weapons.
The maximum ranges and altitudes of Manpads vary from system to system, but they are generally used against low-flying aircraft, such as fixed-wing aircraft soon after takeoff or shortly before landing, or helicopters.
Sunni militants in Iraq have long maintained a limited, aging stock of SA-7 Manpads, a ubiquitous Soviet-designed system that they periodically used during the American occupation from 2003 to 2011, said Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.
Since at least late 2013, however, the Islamic State’s forces in Iraq appear to have acquired more sophisticated antiaircraft missile systems, including the Chinese-made FN-6, originally provided by Qatar and possibly also Saudi Arabia to Syrian rebels.
In the images purporting to show the shooting down of the Iraqi attack helicopter, on October 3 in Baiji, the militant, a scarf wrapped around his face, is wielding a Chinese-made FN-6 missile system — apparently the first documented use of the weapon by Islamic State jihadists in Iraq, analysts said.
The militants claimed to have shot down several other Iraqi military helicopters this year, most recently a Bell 407 on a surveillance mission near Baiji on October 8.
“Judging by reports from Iraq, and in particular Anbar Province, over the last three to four months, it would seem ISIL have been using Manpads far more frequently and more successfully than Syrian rebels have ever done,” Lister added.
An even greater potential concern is that militants might get their hands on SA-24’s, a more sophisticated system that Russia recently sold to Iraq, and first showed up in militant videos in September, said Matthew Schroeder, a missile proliferation analyst at Small Arms Survey, an independent research project based in Geneva.
The SA-24’s have a longer range than older models and use faster and more maneuverable missiles, Schroeder said.
Newer systems also have a greater ability to hit targets from a wider range of angles, such as a perpendicular shot at a moving target like a plane on its approach to a runway.
As Iraqi and United States officials have weighed the threats to their military aircraft, they have also taken steps to safeguard the nation’s airports. The protection of Baghdad International Airport, on the western edge of the capital, has been of special concern, especially since the early summer when the Islamic State’s advances in Anbar and on the western fringes of greater Baghdad brought it to within 15 miles of the airport.
Officials acknowledge that any disruption to the airport’s services by an insurgent attack of any type would have an outsize psychological and logistical impact.
In July, the Pentagon rushed the Apaches, plus Shadow surveillance drones and 200 American soldiers, to the airport based on a classified intelligence assessment that the sprawling complex was vulnerable to attack, American officials say.
But although the Islamic State has continued to score victories in nearby Anbar, the militants have not advanced closer to the city since the summer, easing fears that the airport was going to be overrun. Iraqi and American military officials have insisted in interviews that they have taken the necessary precautions to protect the airport and aircraft there, and that there is not an imminent danger of attack.
Vehicle access to the passenger terminal area is tightly controlled with special permission granted on a case-by-case basis. The airport is bordered on the east and northeast by a large military complex. In the farmlands that abut the rest of the complex, the government has militarized the roads with a heavy police and military presence and checkpoints, and, officials said, infiltrated the neighborhoods with intelligence officers.
“We’re very sure that Baghdad International Airport is safe for departure and for arrival,” said Capt. Saad M. Saeed, the general director of Iraqi Airways, Iraq’s national carrier. “I’m a pilot. If I know there’s one-in-a-million chance, I won’t take the risk.”
Yet in August, an Iraqi Airways captain told colleagues that his plane had been hit by gunfire as it approached the airport from the north, a route that would have passed over the restive Sunni district of Abu Ghraib. The plane, which landed safely, was hit by at least two bullets, according to two Iraqi Airways pilots who said they had been told about the shooting.
Ali al-Bayati, deputy director of Iraqi Airways, denied that such an event had occurred. Rumors, he said, were part of the Islamic State’s arsenal. “Considering that the airport is a very high-value target for them,” he said, “they’re spreading a lot of rumors.”