Five ISIS Weapons of War America Should Fear

ISIS’ path to prominence—from amassing large amounts of territory and taking on all challengers—lies in its choice of arms and tactics. 

Thus far, ISIS has used a variety of light anti-aircraft weaponry in both Iraq and Syria. This weaponry has served to deter both the Syrian and Iraqi air forces (the latter more than the former), in large part because of the modest capabilities of these forces. A recent report from Small Arms Survey added some detail on the anti-aircraft weaponry currently owned by ISIS. The weapons used include light anti-aircraft artillery (mostly stolen from the Iraqi and Syrian armies), shoulder-fired SAMs (including the Strela and Igla; reports of Stingers have not been confirmed), and heavy machine guns. ISIS has not, to our knowledge, attempted to put any of the aircraft it captured from Syria (including MiG-21s) into service, and the U.S. air campaign probably makes such an eventuality even less likely.

This level of ordnance can’t defeat a concerted air campaign pursued by a major, modern air force. Indeed, unless ISIS gets incredibly lucky, it’s unlikely that the US and its coalition partners will lose even a single aircraft (although A-10s should probably take some care). However, if the United States ever expects the Kurds or the Iraqis (not to mention the Free Syrian Army) to conduct offensive operations on their own, it’ll need to ensure that they’re supplied with adequate air support. The United States has, it’s fair to say, utterly failed at this project so far.


Light insurgent forces often fall short in terms of artillery, but ISIS has managed to acquire a respectable arsenal. ISIS reportedly fields a wide range of mobile artillery, some mounted in trucks. This includes traditional infantry operated mortars, as well as a variety of larger, towed pieces. In particular, ISIS has managed to seize a large number of M-46 130mm field guns. ISIS has also become adept at creating makeshift artillery by mounting missiles and rockets intended for different purposes (sometimes including ground attack) from its trucks and other vehicles.

This gives ISIS a punch that more conventional forces need to respect. It has also given ISIS the ability to conduct extended sieges of defended positions in the face of conventional and air attack, as demonstrated in its recent seizure of Tabqa airbase.

Assault Rifles:

The primary infantry weapon of ISIS has, unsurprisingly, become the AK-47 assault rifle and its variants. AK-47s are readily available in Syria and neighboring countries, and ISIS has sufficient cash to procure modern, reliable models, even as prices for guns and ammunition have increased. ISIS also has a well-regarded system of training, and focuses on experienced fighters. While the AK-47 is reputed to be the weapon of the ignorant and the untrained, the weapon becomes considerably more effective in the hands of experienced fighters with a grasp of modern infantry tactics. When supplemented with a variety of other light weapons, including RPGs, rockets, and light mortars, an AK-47 equipped ISIS team can fight formidably on both the offense and the defense. Focusing on the AK-47 also reduces ISIS’ logistical complications.


The big victories won by ISIS earlier this year allowed the group to take control of a large amount of American weaponry, previously operated by America’s Iraqi and Kurdish allies. Apparently, some of the airstrikes launched by U.S. and coalition forces have concentrated on these weapons. However, apart from the few instances noted above of ISIS using tanks and Humvees, we have little sense of how the group will try to fit these weapons into its operational concept. We also don’t know how ISIS will react to the massive expansion of the Western air campaign over the past few weeks.

We should also not understate the flexibility of ISIS operations. ISIS has successfully conducted territorial defense against all of its enemies, indicating that it’s not simply a “grab and run” kind of group. There’s no doubt that the U.S. campaign creates huge problems for ISIS, but we can expect from its behavior thus far that it will respond through dangerously professional means.

Robert Farley is an assistant professor at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce. His work includes military doctrine, national security, and maritime affairs. He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money and Information Dissemination and The Diplomat. Follow him on Twitter:@drfarls.