Just two and a half week into the ongoing operation to recapture Islamic States’ (ISIS) primary, and last, Iraqi urban stronghold Mosul, the militants successfully took an American-made Iraqi Army M1A1 Abrams tank out of action with an anti-tank missile – some reports say by a Russian-made 9M133 Kornet missile, likely seized from the Iraqi inventory by ISIS when the Iraqi Army infamously fled ISIS advances in the summer of 2014, but it remains unclear.
Then on November 8, ISIS reportedly managed to take out two Russian-made Iraqi T-72 tanks as the army slowly advanced against the militants in Mosul’s east.
These were some of the heaviest blows ISIS has been able to afflict against the incoming Iraqi Army in the Mosul battle. It indicates that the deeper Iraqi forces push into the Mosul metropolis the harder and more costly the fighting will be as ISIS use all available weapons they have in a last ditch effort to repel their enemies from territory they have conquered in the last two-and-a-half years.
The strike on the Iraqi tank highlights the growing proliferation of a weapons system in limited use by insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan during the height of the U.S.-led wars there but is rapidly solidifying itself as an enduring threat on the battlefields of the future. — Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “This Video Shows ISIS Destroying an Advanced U.S.-Built Tank Outside Mosul“, The Washington Post,03.11.2016.
Using such missiles in an asymmetrical war can enable a much weaker enemy to exert a high cost on its attacking adversary, possibly even too high of a cost for that adversary to tolerate. Potentially enabling that weaker opponent to stave off what would otherwise be an ultimate defeat. As ISIS is increasingly surrounded by incoming enemies on multiple fronts it would make sense for them to unleash any weapon they can in an attempt to exert untenable costs on its opponents in hopes they can avoid a total defeat on the battlefield.
The militants have also demonstrated that they are not completely powerless when it comes to resisting air attacks. In late September the British Royal Air Force reported that their jet fighters have been targeted by ISIS launched surface-to-air missiles over Mosul, likely shoulder-launched ones. They had anticipated this since the US-led air campaign against the militants began in August 2014. Again, the fact they weren’t used until this late stage in the war appears to indicate the militants were keeping them in reserve for when they needed every tool at their disposal to try and defend areas they cannot retreat from, or cannot afford to retreat from.
More worryingly in Syria’s Palmyra region, ISIS were able to shoot down a Syrian Mi-25 Hind helicopter gunship piloted by Russian instructors, killing them both back in July. In that incident the helicopter had run out of ammunition engaging the militants on the ground before it was shot down, reportedly by an American-made BGM-71 TOW heavy anti-tank missile (likely stolen from one of the Syrian opposition groups the US, the Saudis and others have supplied with such weapons), as it was turning to return to base.
Unlike the Russians in Syria the US-led coalition against ISIS has used such aircraft sparingly. In fact the AH-64 Apache helicopter gunships the US have deployed to Iraq in 2014 were only used on two occasions before their deployment in the current battle for Mosul. Once in October 2014 to force ISIS back from an attempted attack from Anbar Province on Baghdad International Airport and once last June in support of Iraqi forces fighting ISIS in Qayyarah south of Mosul. Their use in the current operation for Mosul is also reported to be minimum. This sparing use of helicopter gunships (which are great for providing close air support) may indicate the coalition is being extremely cautious over flying too many low altitude missions against ISIS, instead relying overwhelming on fighters and bombers to target ISIS from higher altitudes in support of the coalitions allies on the ground.
Nevertheless it’s also worth noting that the Iraqis on the other hand used their Russian-made Mi-28 and Mi-35s in the Fallujah operation against ISIS in support of ground forces over the summer without any losses.
While these separate incidents are themselves worrying put together they indicate little more than that ISIS is a formidable opponent when cornered. But ISIS’s possession of limited numbers of anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles alone won’t be enough to tip the balance against its vastly larger and superiorly equipped adversaries. The best the group can hope to do is temporarily hinder and bog down their ultimate loss of the territory over which their black flag currently flies.
Dan Goure, “Are Tanks Obsolete?: YouTube Video Makes The Case For Active Protection Systems“, The National Interest, 01.11.2016.