Do SAMs pose a real threat to civil aviation?

 - January 4, 2008, 11:19 AM

What is the realistic likelihood of your aircraft being targeted by a shoulder-launched surface-to-air missile (SAM) in the hands of a terrorist? After an Israeli charter airliner was unsuccessfully attacked by such weapons in Mombasa, Kenya, on November 28, the threat of man-portable air defense systems (manpads) has elevated concerns about terrorists shooting at airplanes. A media blitz raised the specter of Western airliners being blasted from the sky.

Some have proclaimed that 11/28 will have darker implications for the aviation industry than 9/11. Other security analysts believe the threat is overblown, pointing to what they consider more prominent concerns over possible attacks on infrastructure and the availability of nuclear and biological weapons of mass destruction. Meanwhile, corporate pilots have been huddling– comparing notes and experiences to assess their own vulnerability and what they can do to lower their profile as a potential target–both within the U.S. and in more remote areas of the world.

Manpads have been around since the Vietnam war. Primary producers have been the U.S. (Stingers and their follow-ons) and the former Soviet Union (SA-7, -14, -16, -18) and its licensees. Typically, manpads are small rocket-propelled warheads with heat-seeking sensors. They are designed to be triggered by a trained operator from a tube-like, disposable launcher and to follow the heat of a jet engine’s exhaust to its source.

Handily portable at about 35 lb, including the launcher, manpads are thought to be easily smuggled throughout the world. Over the years, each new generation of manpads has grown more capable. Once launched, a manpad’s missile moves out at some 1,500 mph, though the weapons are generally considered to be effective only on relatively slow-moving targets at low altitude. Unfortunately, transport-type aircraft in takeoff or landing configuration accurately fit this profile.

Early versions of manpads topped out at a range of three to five miles, with a ceiling of 10,000 ft. They were also considered ineffective on targets below 150 ft. (That could be what spared the chartered Israeli Boeing 757-300 operated by the state airline Arkia. Its pilots reported that they saw the two Vietnam-vintage SA-7 missiles pass off their wing just after liftoff, before the Boeing 757 had reached 150 ft. The airplane carried 261 passengers and 10 crewmembers.) Today’s latest, most sophisticated manpads may be effective up to 15,000 ft with upgraded seekers designed to defeat the newest countermeasures. Also, the SA-7s used in the Mombasa attack apparently were not equipped with proximity fuses, which would have detonated the warhead when the missile got within range of the target without having to score a direct hit.

Among the confusion surrounding manpads is the incorrect reporting of several attacks. According to Jane’s Intelligence Review, some governments have reported manpad attacks that were actually carried out using rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). Most attacks on aircraft at low level–below 1,000 ft–were done with RPGs rather than manpads, but they may have been erroneously reported as missile attacks. It was RPG fire that brought down two U.S. Army Sikorsky MH-60 Black Hawk helicopters in Somalia in October 1993.

Another apparent misconception concerns the shelf life of manpads. Some believe that the nature of the missiles’ batteries, propellant and seeker coolant limit their useful life. But other experts contend that the weapons are hermetically sealed for rough, battlefield conditions and replacement batteries can be adapted from commercially available units. With proper care, they say, a manpad can remain potent for at least 22 years.

Dozens of countries have produced hundreds of thousands of manpads over the past three decades. Experts differ on how many of the Soviet-designed weapons may have been sold on the black market, and how much they may cost. According to a pre-November 28 article in the online magazine Salon, soldiers of the former Soviet republic of Georgia seized a supply of missiles during a 1998 uprising. Reportedly, Chechen rebels likewise attacked and pilfered a Russian armory to equip themselves with manpads to use against Russian helicopters.

Chris Hellman, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Defense Information, told AIN, “There are credible reports that, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian soldiers simply walked into their armories and took whatever they wanted off the shelves to sell.” While conceding that an accurate number is tough to assess, he said there could be “tens of thousands” of Russian or license-built SA-series manpads in the hands of so-called “non-state” or guerrilla/terrorist groups. Hellman said manpads of Soviet origin could be bought on the black market for as little as $50,000 each. An editor for Jane’s World Armies told USA Today that the price could be as low as $5,000 for someone with the right connections. Jane’s Intelligence Review estimates that manpads are now in the hands of up to 27 terrorist groups that have the deep pockets, the connections or both.

Perhaps more ominously, American-made Stinger manpads–said to be more sophisticated and effective than their Russian counterparts–may also be available on the black market in great numbers. From 1979 to 1988, at the height of the Cold War, the U.S. supplied more than 900 Stingers to the Taliban government in Afghanistan and its Al-Qaeda operatives who were fighting the Russian army. What may have seemed like a good way to cripple the then-Soviet military has come back to haunt the U.S.

Political scientists call it “blowback,” and it’s been going on since the beginning of technological warfare. In the 1930s, scrap steel from Brooklyn’s demolished elevated-train trestles was exported to then-friendly Japan, which used the material in its military buildup. In the early days of U.S. involvement in World War II, Brooklyn-raised Marines ducking incoming Japanese artillery groused, “Here comes another chunk of the 8th Avenue el.”

An unknown number of Stingers remained unused against the Russians in the 1980s and as many as 300 of the manpads have found their way onto the black market. Despite an expansive buy-back program initiated by the CIA in Afghanistan (which drove the black market price as high as $100,000 each), some believe that Osama bin Laden himself may be protected by a circle of Al-Qaeda loyalists armed with Stingers.

The first reported attempt to use a manpad against a civilian aircraft came in 1973, when Palestinian terrorists in Rome were arrested before they could launch their weapons. In the first successful attack, in 1978, an airliner was downed by a shoulder-launched SAM over Chad. Jane’s Intelligence Review reports at least seven fatal attacks on commercial aircraft world- wide from April 1996 to October 2000. According to Salon, U.S. government agencies estimate that, since the 1970s, at least 42 civilian aircraft have been hit by manpads–with 29 going down. The FBI claims some 550 people were killed in those crashes. Hillman of the Center for Defense Information said there is strong evidence that there have been unsuccessful manpad attacks on civilian aircraft in Saudi Arabia over the past few months.

Two other factors confuse the question of how many attacks there have been on civilian aircraft by manpads. As reported above, some of the aircraft may have been attacked by rocket-propelled grenades or other ordnance; and the civilian status of some aircraft is open to question. For instance, a pair of C-130s shot down in Angola in December 1998 and January 1999, killing 13, were chartered by the UN, but may have been reported as military.

Although struck by an air-to-air missile, the Hawker 800 carrying Juvénal Habyarimana, the president of Rwanda, shows what a manpad can do. In the late 1980s, the business jet was flying over Angola when an Angolan MiG-23 pilot attacked it with two heat-seeking air-to-air missiles. The first warhead struck the right engine, tearing most of it from the mounts and puncturing the pressure vessel. The second missile locked onto the heat signature of the falling engine, which spared the airplane and the president. After an emergency landing, the Hawker was crated back to the UK and rebuilt to fly another day.

Some years later, another Rwandan government business jet wasn’t so lucky. A Falcon 50 operated by the African country was downed by a political dissident using a shoulder-fired SAM in April 1994, killing Habyarimana (and his counterpart from Burundi) and helping to spark the savagely bloody Hutu-Tutsi civil war. As best as AIN can determine, that’s the only known case so far of a business jet being brought down by a manpad, though numerous airliners and military aircraft have fallen to SAMs. In fact, reports that 80 percent of all U.S. fixed-wing aircraft losses during operation Desert Storm came at the hands of manpad operators.

Manpads are out there and they’re deadly, so what’s a pilot to do? A pilot wrote on the NBAA Air Mail Internet chat site: “The ‘endgame’ as it’s called is the three to 10 seconds during which the missile is in flight. You are not going to maneuver a 2.5-g aircraft to defeat the threat! Knowledge is the best defense. The envelope is three to five nautical miles and 150 ft to 16,000 ft agl, and that bubble moves with you. If hit, fly the airplane, assess what you have left and land ASAP. The small warhead may not inflict severe damage, though later missiles got larger warheads. Night works to your advantage because it is difficult to aim the missile.”

Though not widely advertised, infrared (heat-seeking) countermeasure equipment is available for business aircraft–and is already in use. Gulfstream offers the BAE Systems AN/ALQ-204 Matador, estimated to cost about $3.5 million, including installation and crew training. Gulfstream said the system has been installed on seven of its aircraft, as well as on some Boeing 747s and BAe 146s. On a Gulfstream, the Matador system weighs about 350 lb and is claimed to incur no aerodynamic penalty. It can be installed during a regular maintenance visit, according to the airplane manufacturer.

The Matador is a “lamp based” system. That is, it uses a matrix of heat transmitters to confuse the heat- seeking sensor in the missile. One device used by military aircraft uses burning phosphorous flares that are ejected in all directions to fool the missile. This is considered impractical for civilian applications, since the flares often start fires when they fall to the ground. The most sophisticated systems use lasers to deflect the missiles’ sensors. Among manufacturers of countermeasure systems, there is disagreement about how much sophistication is enough. Some say lamp-based systems can do the job and lasers are too expensive. Laser proponents say their systems weigh less, take up less space and are capable of thwarting the most sophisticated manpads. Among Russian-designed manpads, the SA-16/18 class is the state of the art– said to have shot down the lion’s share of allied aircraft lost during Desert Storm.

Meanwhile, manufacturers of countermeasures systems anxiously await the reaction from airlines, hoping they will choose to outfit their aircraft with anti-manpad technology. Of those manufacturers, two Israeli companies are pressing to develop civilian versions of their military systems. Rafael and Elta are said to be adapting systems that could cost $1.5 million to $1 million, respectively. Though airlines are the most tempting market segment, bizav could also benefit.