If you guessed that the best place to see US fighter jets slugging it out against North Korean tanks would be somewhere near the DMZ, you wouldn't be crazy. After all, it's where the US Seventh Air Force (among others) and about 90 jillion North Korean tanks are facing off, armed to the hilt, ready to unleash death and destruction.
But as it happens, your guess might be off by about 4,500 miles. It turns out you'll probably see US jets taking out North Korean tanks in the Middle East long before you'll see it happen anywhere near the DMZ. Yes, last week, two developments occurred that could cause that kind of rupture in the WTF continuum.
On December 3, VICE News reported that a US-made F-4 Phantom aircraft flown (presumably) by Iranian pilots was spotted striking Islamic State targets in Iraq. The jets were in "Little Green Men" mode — they had no identifying national markings on the aircraft — just like the Russian soldiers who participated in the Great Crimean Heist earlier this spring, except at a much higher altitude.
Around the same time, NK News reported that the Islamic State commandeered Soviet-era tanks that had been modified by North Korea. The militants were using them to crash around, blow things up, and get up to all the usual nutty Islamic State antics.
So yes, it's entirely possible that US-made aircraft flown by Iranians have carried out (or will carry out) strikes that hit Soviet-made, North Korean-upgraded tanks, driven by Islamic State fighters.
Which is entirely, utterly bonkers.
In every first-person shooter game, looting the bodies of your enemies for weapons and ammunition is so integral to the game that it's basically automatic (either in game or by the player).
The Islamic State may now have slightly more than no air force. Read more here.
But that idea doesn't translate well in real-life when you're talking about big, complex machinery. From time to time, armies will use captured equipment, but it's seldom the first choice or the best option. For starters, using captured enemy gear creates a bit of a friendly fire risk because you're taking equipment into battle that is exactly like the stuff the bad guys are still using to try to kill you.
Second, operating and maintaining captured enemy equipment isn't that easy, especially over the long haul. It doesn't always come with a full set of manuals, spare parts, or decent customer service.
Inheriting equipment and keeping it going over time can turn into quite the time-consuming restoration project. But protracted war can be a lot like last call: Standards drop fast and whatever is available starts looking really good.
In the case of Iran, way back before the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the US was best buddies with the Shah of Iran, and sold him some top-line US combat aircraft. It's the only time the US has ever sold a country the F-14 Tomcat fighter jet. The US also sold Iran F-4 Phantoms.
After the fall of the Shah, the care and feeding of that equipment became the focus of some pretty significant Iranian efforts. US fears that these old weapons would be turned against them reached a crescendo in the late 1980s when the US and Iran were going after each other pretty seriously. In 1988, the USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian airliner, later claiming to have mistaken the aircraft for an Iranian F-14 getting ready to attack.
These cases of mistaken identity (a little bit like "friendly fire") are less likely now than they were back then, simply because the US no longer uses the same kinds of US-built aircraft that the Iranian Air Force is keeping in service. That said, there's still a chance (at least with the F-4 Phantom) of problems, as these planes are still in service with the Turkish Air Force.
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The case of the Islamic State using North Korean tanks is a slightly different matter. Last summer, the militants captured a number of bases and outposts in Syria and Iraq, and have used weapons captured in those battles to continue their fight. This includes North Korean upgrades of the venerable and ancient T-55 tank. The tanks themselves are a lot easier to keep in operation — they're basically just old construction equipment without a lot of bells and whistles.
However, the North Korean upgrades to the tanks that wound up in Syria (like the T-55MV) may be an improvement over the original. Even adding basic laser range-finding equipment, a new engine, and reactive armor (which can defeat certain kinds of anti-tank warheads) can do a lot to make the tank a more serious threat.
I haven't run across any reports confirming Iranian F-4 jets have carried out strikes on Islamic State-operated T-55MV tanks. But the fact that I even needed to write that sentence says a lot about how bonkers this whole thing is becoming.
Normally, a military that's healthy and robust doesn't run around scavenging weapons, but the situation in the Middle East isn't anywhere near normal. Basically, this Apocalypse With Borders (formerly known as Syria and Iraq) is turning into a gigantic particle accelerator. But instead of smashing subatomic particles into each other near the speed of light to form new, short-lived, exotic particles, the war with the Islamic State is doing that with military stuff, creating strange forms of batshit-crazy weaponization never before seen outside of the more lavishly stupid corners of the internet.
Just a year or two ago, if someone described a US jet carrying out an airstrike near a Syrian-run and owned tank, it meant one thing: The US was trying to blow up a Syrian tank. But now a number of factions fighting within Syria are using these tanks. A lot of countries around the region are flying US combat aircraft. There's no way to know if a US jet blowing things up near a Syrian tank got unlucky and missed a target, or narrowly avoided hitting an ally.
And don't forget it's not just old US jets and North Korean tank upgrades. There are all kinds of strange combinations of equipment, people, and munitions that are now being employed in the service of incomprehensible alliances for unfathomable political ends. There are German anti-tank missiles in the hands of the Islamic State, Dutch bikers fighting with Kurdish militias, all kinds of European jihadis, and LA gangbangers fighting in support of Bashar al-Assad. The whole thing is a hot mess that is giving rise to combinations and conflicts that have simply never existed before.
As the chaos continues, it almost seems that future reports about fighting will be cribbed from Hell's Own Mad Libs. Let's just hope that the fighting in the Middle East hits peak weirdness before it completely tears the WTF continuum apart.
Updated reference to the incident involving the USS Vincennes was clarified
Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan
Photo via Wikimedia Commons