By Anthony Tucker-Jones
The commercial aviation industry has been confronted by the possibility of a surface-to-air missile (SAM) shooting down a passenger airliner at least since the 1980s when a Stinger missile fell into Iranian hands. Today the greatest threat posed to aircraft by shoulder-fired missiles is during takeoff and landings.
Following the collapse of the USSR the proliferation of the Soviet-designed SA-series man portable air defense systems (MANPADS) increased dramatically. The spread of these weapons vastly exceeded the infamous theft of the US-made Stinger. During the 1991 and 2003 Iraq wars, the threat from MANPADS was a factor that had to be considered in Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses operations. Modern countermeasures appear to have largely succeeded in thwarting the aging technology that is the majority of available MANPADS. Before the attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan, both countries were assessed to be equipped with Strela-2/SA-7 and quantities of these missiles and possibly others fell into insurgents hands, but they are reported to have generally missed their targets. Following the coalition intervention in Afghanistan, some 5,600 shoulder-fired SAMs were captured; many more, though, are available on the black market.
Around 20 countries have produced more than a million MANPADS, though less than half are assessed to be operational with them in service with almost 60 countries. It has been claimed that up to 150,000 missiles fell into terrorists hands and are operated by about 30 terror groups. Although such estimates are unverifiable, the legal transfer of MANPADS internationally is largely unhindered. In recent years, efforts have been made to destroy surplus stocks and the US Department of Homeland Security runs a Counter-MANPADS Special Program Office.
The late Afghan guerrilla leader Ahmad Shah Massoud said there were only two things the mujahideen needed in their Holy War against the Soviets—the Koran and the Stinger. The latter first went into action in Afghanistan on September 25, 1986. Whereas the use of the SA-7 and Stinger against the Soviets was deemed beneficial, the fear of their use against unapproved targets was a completely different matter. The Central Intelligence Agency and British Joint Intelligence Committee were very alert to the danger of a commercial aircraft being brought down over Afghanistan or the Gulf. Indeed, Iranian Revolutionary Guards stole half a dozen Stinger missiles the following year from a convoy en route to guerrilla forces operating near the western Afghan city of Herat. Skeptics suspected that Washington cooked up this story to hide the possibility that Afghan rebels had sold them.
After Moscow's withdrawal from Afghanistan, at least 300 Stinger missiles remained unaccounted for and there was a real danger that they might end up in Iranian hands or with terrorist groups such as Hezbollah or Hamas.The more immediate anxiety was that a commercial airliner would be shot at while transiting Afghanistan's airspace.Washington adopted its oft-practiced policy of throwing money at a problem, outbidding any interested parties by offering $55 million for the return of the missiles.
Although the Irish Republican Army (IRA) sought MANPADS in Europe, it was much harder to smuggle arms into Northern Ireland than into Afghanistan. Only the IRA's Libyan connection seemed to bear any fruit. Following Muammar Gaddafi's involvement, the vessel Eksund, containing up to 50 Libyan SA-7 missiles, was seized by the French in 1987. Reportedly, one was fired at a British Army Lynx four years later in South Armagh, but it missed its target. The IRA's East Tyrone Brigade is rumored to have made an acquisition attempt, but without any success. In 1994 intelligence officials warned that the IRA was trying to obtain Stinger missiles; ultimately, IRA SAM stocks exposed were small—just seven were decommissioned in 2005.
On November 28, 2002, two SA-7 missiles fired at an Israeli Boeing 757 flying out of Mombassa, Kenya, missed their target. Similarly, two years later on November 22, 2004, an Airbus A300 leaving Baghdad airport survived missile wing damage and was forced to land. It was deemed a write-off.
On March 23, 2007, a Belarussian TransAVIAexport Airlines Ilyushin Il-76 was shot down over Mogadishu, Somalia. One eyewitness recalled, "I saw with my eyes when the plane was flying low level, was hit by a rocket, and then fell to the ground." Later it was said that the aircraft with the Belarusian National Airline had been shot down by a SAM.
Available information suggests that Iran may have been behind this attack having already taken the decision to supply the Taliban with such weapons to employ against coalition forces. According to intelligence sources, Iran supplied Somali Islamists with around 200 SA-7s in 2006 and the following year it was alleged that Iranian QW-1s and SA-7s had been delivered to insurgents in Iraq. Iran had reportedly reverse engineered the QW-1 and had been buying up surplus SA-7s in the Far East.
In April 2007 the British Special Boat Service operating in Afghanistan's Nimroz province interdicted trucks coming over the Iranian border carrying SA-7 missiles. Despite this successful capture, on July 22, 2007, the Taliban attempted to bring down an American C-130 Hercules over Nimroz using an SA-7 of Soviet or Chinese origin brought in from Iran. The Taliban at that point was actively seeking SAMs because their only Successes against coalition helicopters had been with rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), which only have an effective range of approximately 500 yards. On this occasion, the Hercules's pilots took evasive action and dropped flares to successfully escape destruction. This was the first time that the Taliban was known to have attempted to take down a coalition aircraft using a SAM. Previously, Washington had moved to head off this threat by offering a bounty of $40,000 per system.
In the run up to the more recent Belarussian airlines attack, it seems the shooters not only conducted a trial run, but also tried to hide their tracks. On March 9, 2007, a weapons team reportedly equipped with an RPG got into position on the approaches to Mogadishu's airport and shot at Belarussian Il-76 Flight EW-78826 carrying Ugandan peacekeepers. Although the aircraft was heavily damaged, it managed to land, but was deemed unairworthy. The Somalis may have tightened security within RPG range creating a false sense of security.
Later that month Belarussian IL-76 Flight EW-78849 arrived in Mogadishu to deliver equipment and to try and salvage EW-78826. On March 23 EW-78849 took off at approximately 1700 Hours destined for Minsk with a refueling stop in Djibouti. The flight was carrying eleven people, including four engineers who had been working on the damaged aircraft. It appears that up to three SAM teams may have been waiting for an opportunity, with one deployed to a nearby farmers' market and one in a small boat offshore.
The crew had just turned back after developing a problem with its number two engine when a wing exploded and plummeted into the Indian Ocean. The stricken plane crashed in the uninhabited Kuluweyne district 19 miles north of Mogadishu. Ten crew members were killed instantly; miraculously, an eleventh was found staggering around amongst the wreckage, but died of his injuries later that day.
According to the Aviation Safety Network, "Shortly after takeoff three missiles were fired at the plane. Reportedly one of the missiles hit the wing. Control was lost and the airplane crashed." There were conflicting reports that the projectile had been fired from a farmers' market or a small boat. Investigators concluded a missile had hit the aircraft.
The threat to commercial aircraft and civil airports remains. Over the period of 1983 to 2004, it appears that around two dozen civilian aircraft were shot down by shoulder-fired missiles resulting in 500 deaths. Just six incidents involved large turbojet airliners and only two of those were catastrophic. Nonetheless, fending off third-generation infrared SAMs using multiple target detectors with the ability to reject flare decoys is difficult. Once fourth-generation SAMs become widely available, the problem will become greater. There is no single defensive fix for the commercial aviation industry. Cost may deter widespread employment of electronic countermeasures unless attacks become more frequent. And, of course, no technology is a panacea.
About the author
Mr. Tucker-Jones served within the British intelligence community and now serves as a military historian and defense writer. His latest book The Rise of Militant Islam (Pen & Sword Military, 2010) examines from an insider's perspective how Western intelligence misinterpreted landmark events on the road to 9/11 and failed to curb global jihad.
1 "Since its appearance in the 1960s, more than 50,000 Strela-2/SA-7s have been built. The Chinese HN5 reverseengineered version led to the Pakistani Anza (which has been exported to Malaysia). The QW-1 successor to the HN-5 appeared in the mid-1990s and Iran also developed the Mithaq-1/2.
2 According to American intelligence analysts Saddam Hussein stockpiled at least 5,000 shoulder-fired missiles and fewer than one-third were recovered. Stocks were primarily the aging SA-7 and SA-14s. The Iraqis were not thought to have the later and more sophisticated SA-16s and SA-18s.
3 The MANPADS Menace: Combating the Threat to Global Aviation from Man-Portable Air Defense Systems, Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, US State Department, Fact Sheet, September 20, 2005
4 'Mombassa Attack Highlights Increasing MANPADS Threat,' Jane's Intelligence Review, February 2003
5 Christopher Bolkcom & Bartholomew Elias, Homeland Security: Protecting Airliners from Terrorist Missiles, CRS Report for Congress, February 16, 2006
6 The resistance fired five missiles scoring three hits against Soviet helicopters over Jalalabad airfield. At Kabul three missiles missed, but it did
not matter because history had been made. Mohammad Yousaf & Mark Adkin, Afghanistan The bear Trap, (Leo Cooper 2001), p.174-176
7 Alex Brummer, 'Stinger missiles snatched from Afghan rebels,' The Guardian, 15 October 1987. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute Iran obtained nine Stingers that were either captured or purchased by Iran from the Afghan Mujahideen, SIPRI Yearbook 1988, p.191
8 In total about 1,000 were delivered by the late 1980s, and its introduction ended Moscow's ability to conduct heliborne ops largely unhindered, see Anthony R. Tucker, 'The Soviet War Over Afghanistan,' Jane's Soviet Intelligence Review, June 1989, p.271. It was not until toward the end of 1988 that in response to these reports of mujahideen groups selling missiles to Iran and in the face of thawing relations with Moscow that Washington stopped supplying Stinger. See 'Kabul regains air supremacy as US halts Stinger supply,' The times, 24 January 1989
9 It was assessed that because of the sensitivity of the battery coolant unit many of the remaining missiles were time expired and inoperable.
10 'Missile hits plane in Somalia,' ABC News Online, March 24 2007
11 'Taliban in first heat-seeking missile attack,' Telegraph.co.uk, July 28 2007
12 Intelligence indicated that Iran was acting as a conduit for Chinese SAMS after it was alleged the Chinese HN-5 had been discovered in the hands of the Taliban. 'London confronts Beijing over Chinese weapons in Taliban hands,' www.afghanistanwatch.org, September 5 2007
13 'Taliban in first heat-seeking missile attack,' Telegraph.co.uk, July 28 2007
14 Taliban's failed first use of SAM still worrisome,' The Washington Times, July 29, 2007
15 Mohamed Olad Hasan, 'Missile "brought down aid flight" with no survivors,' The Independent, March 25, 2007
16 Criminal Occurrence Description, Preliminary March 23 2007, aviationsafety.
17 Sahal Abdulle, 'Belarus says plane shot down in Somalia,' Reuters, March 24, 2007
18 Homeland Security: Protecting Airliners from Terrorist Missiles