NEW YORK // An increase in the mandatory altitude for US airlines flying over Iraq to 30,000 feet indicates that air safety officials are taking additional precautions in the face of evidence that extremists in Iraq and Syria may have shoulder-fired missile launchers and possibly even more powerful surface-to-air missile systems.
After the downing of a Malaysia Airlines flight over rebel-held eastern Ukraine two weeks ago there is increasing concern about rules governing airspace above conflict zones.
The US Federal Aviation Administration, which previously restricted US airliners from flying below 20,000 feet over Iraq, raised the altitude requirement by 10,000 feet on Thursday as a result of “the potentially hazardous situation created by the armed conflict” there.
The FAA also prohibited US passenger planes from flying to the two international airports in Iraq’s Kurdish region, in Erbil and Sulaymaniyah.
There was no indication if the revised rules were prompted by specific intelligence about the Islamic State, the extremist militant group that has captured large areas of Iraq and Syria and sized military equipment from their armies.
The FAA’s altitude revision is an “indication that they’re afraid that somebody might fire a manpads,” said Anthony Cordesman, a senior defence expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Manpads is a military acronym for shoulder-fired man-portable air-defence system.
“These are systems you can hit an airliner with” during landing or take-off, but not at 30,000 feet, which is above the reach of even the most advanced manpads, Mr Cordesman said.
It is unlikely Iraq’s weapons stockpiles would have provided the militants with surface-to-air missile systems, whether shoulder or vehicle-mounted versions, because the Iraqi military did not have much, if any, anti-aircraft capability. “Iraqi forces didn’t need any manpads because there was no air force they were opposing,” Mr Cordesman said.
“Syria is a different story — you don’t know exactly what more sophisticated systems could have been taken out of Syrian hands.”
The Syrian military was believed to possess a range of anti-aircraft systems, and Islamic State militants have been seen firing what was likely a Russian-made Igla-series manpads, which likely came from Syrian regime stockpiles.
More worryingly, there is some evidence to suggest that the militants captured a “Kub” SA-6 mobile air-defence system in recent fighting with Syrian forces, the forerunner of the “Buk” system rebels in Ukraine are suspected to have used to down an airliner, said Jeremy Binnie, Middle East editor at IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly.
“So far I have only seen a launcher vehicle with no radar vehicle or missiles,” Mr Binnie said. “Even if they have all the required components in a serviceable condition, they would need personnel who have been trained on the Kub to operate it.”
Pro-Russia rebels in Ukraine are thought to have received training or even direct assistance from Russian military personnel — expertise that Islamic State militants are unlikely to have.
While former military officers from Iraq’s now banned Baath party are fighting the government in an alliance with the Islamic State, it is unclear how integrated the various insurgent factions are.
The Syrian military has at least five Kub-type systems in its arsenal, all of which would be exceedingly difficult for Islamic State militants to operate without training, but they are designed to be used by tired field crews and do not have advanced safety measures, Mr Cordesman said. “You just don’t know whether [the Islamic State], if they got any of these, could operate them.”
More moderate Syrian rebels not aligned with the Islamic State or Syria’s Al Qaeda affiliate, Al Nusra Front, have been seen operating an Osa SA-8, similar to the Kub, Mr Binnie said, adding, “it has been a few months now since we have seen this system in action”.
But despite the threat to civilian aircraft over Syria, the FAA only “strongly discourages … flying to, from, or over” the country. In May 2013, the organisation reported that “ incidents include situations where civil aircraft unexpectedly found themselves in close proximity to munitions and missile firings. ”
Mr Cordesman said he had not seen any reports that rebels have taken vehicle-mounted anti-aircraft systems in Syria, and that if US intelligence officials had evidence that Islamic State had not only manpads but the larger missiles also, the FAA would have banned flights over Iraq and Syria entirely.
US flights are already entirely prohibited from Libyan airspace, where militias looted vast quantities of arms during and after the war that overthrew dictator Muammar Qaddafi.