Earlier this Christmas Eve, the Islamic State captured an F-16 pilot from the Royal Jordanian Air Force. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Islamic State, the F-16 was shot down by anti-aircraft guns, but the Pentagon says there is no evidence of a shootdown and suggests mechanical failure was to blame.
Seizing the propaganda opportunity, the group then quickly posted photos of the capture on social media. Shortly thereafter, the group added screenshots of the pilot’s Facebook page and his personal details.
For both tactical and strategic reasons, this incident is significant.
On the tactical side, it suggests — if the reports about the shootdown are accurate — the group has improved its ability to bring down advanced fighter aircraft. While technical issues or pilot error may have been involved here, Jordan’s Air Force is well equipped and well trained. Moreover, for months now, ISIS has possessed a number of Chinese FN-6 single-user-operated anti-air missile systems captured from other Syrian rebel groups. While these missiles are effective only below 13,000 feet, that doesn’t mean they’re useless. Lacking the target-identification technology of their U.S. counterparts, Arab coalition pilots often engage Islamic State forces from lower altitudes. In order to avoid innocent casualties, these pilots are taking greater risks for themselves.
This incident presents two immediate tactical challenges for the coalition.
First, it raises concerns that the coalition may lack a sufficient combat-search-and-rescue capability. When a pilot is downed, standard military procedure is for all other allied aircraft to fly close air support to protect the pilot until a rescue team can arrive. Without an array of forward operations bases in Syria or Iraq, however, rescue forces were likely hundreds of miles from the pilot and that kind of support was impossible. The coalition will now have to reassess its posture.
Second, with the risk to its pilots now publicly apparent, coalition commanders may order pilots to fly at higher altitudes. But while this will make another shootdown less likely, it will also allow the Islamic State to better hide its forces and increase the risks of civilian deaths.
The incident poses a strategic quandary, too: Other coalition governments may react to this incident with restrictions on what their forces will do.
In Afghanistan, for instance, many NATO members restricted commanders from sending their forces to the violent south of the country for fear of high casualties. Coalition leaders might introduce “national caveats” on when, where, and how their forces are now used in the campaign against the Islamic State. Indeed, with low-flying U,S, A-10s now deployed in the region, even American commanders will face tough new force-protection calculations.
This speaks to a broader truth: Military decisions involve serious political complications. Serving civilian masters fearful of military risk, commanders must balance their objectives against domestic political complexities. President Obama’s refusal to deploy ground forces against the Islamic State, for instance, has been a source of frustration in the Pentagon for a while.
Unfortunately, the Islamic State is likely to use the Jordanian pilot as a propaganda pawn. Aware of the coalition’s internal political complexities, the jihadists believe they can weaken the alliance’s military effectiveness.
Ultimately, of course, this is a human tragedy. The fate of a courageous pilot now rests in the hands of a death cult. But while his plight must remain foremost in our minds, we must not allow the group to use him against Jordan or the coalition. Instead, we must restructure and redouble our efforts toward the annihilation of the Islamic State: a cause that is absolutely necessary for the security of the Middle East — and the West.
Editor’s Note: The original version of this article suggested that the Islamic State had shot the aircraft down; it has been updated to reflect the fact that those reports came from local sources, while the Pentagon has maintained the crash was an accident.