Over the past year, the Islamic State has swept over much of Iraq and Syria, capturing the attention of Western powers. However, despite innumerable reports and media stories on the Islamic State, few have gone into detail regarding the armament of the group’s fighters. This piece intends to assess the potency of the Islamic States forces, evaluating both the group’s weaponry as well as its capability to use such weapons effectively. Knowledge of the weapons and experience of the Islamic State’s militants is essential to any plan aimed at rolling back and eventually defeating the Islamic State. More importantly, the current military strategy employed against the Islamic State, one almost completely centered on airstrikes, fails to reduce the Islamic State's armories or pool of experienced fighters in the long term. Should the coalition against the Islamic State fail to alter its strategy, Islamic State militants will seem to have defied the world's mightiest military powers, strengthening their propaganda machine and potentially encouraging thousands more to join their ranks. Wars may be fought for ideological or socioeconomic reasons, but victory comes to those who enter battle better prepared.

In comparison to most contemporary insurgencies, the Islamic State wages a much more conventional style of warfare. Rather than attempt to wear down enemy forces through sustained guerilla campaigns centered on improvised explosive devises, the Islamic State has adopted an almost blitzkrieg-like strategy. This change in strategy from the Islamic State’s early guerilla years as an al-Qaeda affiliate is reflected in the weaponry used by its fighters. For example, in its efforts to increase the mobility of its forces as well as more effectively launch assaults, the Islamic State has captured and maintained a large force of armored vehicles. The bulk of these vehicles are Soviet in origin, ranging from the simple T-55 battle tank to the more modern 2S1 Gvozdika self-propelled gun. Compared to their American counterparts, Soviet weapons are generally cheaper and are known for their durability. To make matters worse, the Islamic State has captured hundreds of heavy artillery pieces, including dozens of American M198 Howitzers capable of decimating targets 18 kilometers away. Armored vehicles and heavy artillery enable the Islamic State to successfully conduct large land offensives. Although the Islamic State continues to rely heavily on technical vehicles (noncombat vehicles, most often a trucks, converted into a primitive assault vehicles), their employment of armor and artillery enables them to quickly override rural regions often defended by lightly-armed militias incapable of countering modern military equipment. In addition, the offensive deployment of armor against infantry lacking the training necessary to deal with armored targets has a detrimental psychological impact on the defending forces. Rather than simply targeting the Islamic State's vehicle stockpiles, coalition forces should center their efforts on tracking the Islamic State's suppliers and ensuring that no new vehicles will replace those that are destroyed in battle. Only through reducing the enemy's logistical capabilities can an insurgency be defeated.

Concerning small arms and light weapons, the Islamic State has an ample stockpile of small arms in addition to an impressive range of heavy machine guns and anti-tank weapons. Contrary to popular belief, most of the Islamic State’s weaponry does not originate from the United States. Instead, Russian and Chinese arms are the first and second most common weapons amongst Islamic State militants, respectively. The large amount of Chinese and Russian manufactured weaponry results from various factors. Firstly, Russian and Chinese weapons are cheaper than arms manufactured in Western states. Secondly, Islamic State militants captured a good portion of arms from the Syrian Army. Given Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s close ties with Russia and China, the origin of these captured weapons should come as no surprise. Thirdly, despite all the arms given by the United States to the Iraqi military, many fell into disrepair as a result of the Iraqi army’s poor discipline and limited logistical capabilities.

Although the international community can do little about the weapons the Islamic State captures from Syrian, Iraqi, and Kurdish forces, the coalition governments should place greater weight on cracking down on the underground arms trade. Furthermore, the international community should hold arms dealers accountable for where their weapons end up. By targeting the Islamic State's supply of weaponry, the group will be left unable to launch new offensives, regardless of how many new fighters they recruit. Unequipped soldiers don't win wars.

Regarding experience, combat proficiency varies greatly amongst Islamic State fighters. The first militants were, for the most part, members of Saddam Hussein’s military and had received ample military training. As of now, the most formidable components of the Islamic State’s army are the thousands of Chechen militants who have joined their ranks. Due to their experience fighting the Russian military throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Chechen militants provide the Islamic State with experienced officers. The current commander of the Islamic State’s ground forces, Tarkhan Batirashvili (he is also known as Abu Omar al-Shishani), was a former officer in the Georgian Armed Forces who fought the Russians in Chechnya. Thanks to its experienced chain of command, the Islamic State is able to efficiently convert foreign volunteer fighters into formidable insurgents.

As of now, the current coalition strategy against the Islamic State is severely flawed. In order to defeat the Islamic State, one must stop the flow of weapons and foreign fighters. Targeting the Islamic State’s armories and leaders today is futile if they’ll simply be replaced tomorrow. Rather than funnel the majority of their resources into airstrikes, Western forces should focus on working with the Turkish government to seal its borders with Iraq and Syria in order to prevent future waves of weapons smuggling and detain potential jihadists. In addition, the United States should put pressure on the Saudi government to secure its border with Iraq to reduce the outpouring of Saudis seeking to join the Islamic State. Only through cutting the Islamic State’s sources of fighters and weapons will airstrikes deal lasting blows against the group. Should the Islamic State be effectively isolated from their logistical lifelines, their defeat will not be a matter of how, but when.