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By Thomas Withington,
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists,
6 June 2003

Terrorism: Stung by Stingers

It should have been a routine departure from Moi International Airport in Mombasa, Kenya. But on November 28, 2002, an Israeli airliner came close to disaster. As the aircraft took off, passengers and crew heard a boom and saw two white vapor trails to the left of the plane. The Arkia Airlines Boeing 757-300 narrowly escaped being shot down by two SA-7 (a.k.a. "Grail") shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles. These missile systems-Man-Portable Air Defense Systems, or Manpads-fire missiles designed to hit low-flying aircraft.

Responsibility for the Mombasa attack was claimed by the shadowy "Government of Universal Palestine in Exile: The Army of Palestine." However, security experts pointed their fingers at Al Qaeda, and at Afghanistan, where these weapons are known to be in plentiful supply.

The Arkia case is not isolated. The International Civil Aviation Organization reckons that 27 civilian fixed-wing aircraft have been destroyed to date using shoulder-launched missiles. In one of the most notorious incidents, a Falcon-50 aircraft, carrying Juvenal Habyarimana, the president of Rwanda, and Cyprien Ntaryamira, the president of Burundi, was downed in April 1994. The event helped spark Rwanda`s bloody civil war.

Israeli intelligence sources have estimated that as many as 500,000 Manpads have been built worldwide. It is impossible to gain an exact figure on how many are in service with armed forces around the world, but the armies of NATO, Russia, India, Pakistan, China, France, and Taiwan are all equipped with them.

There are several reasons why terrorists are attracted to shoulder-launched missiles. The U.S. Raytheon FIM-92A, or "Stinger," can hit targets traveling at altitudes of 3,000- 26,000 feet. The Russian SA-7 can hit targets traveling at 1,600-16,000 feet. And the missiles can be fired some distance from the prying eyes of airport security staff. The attack in Kenya was launched a thousand yards from the airport. Although the "best used before" dates on these missile systems are sometimes short (Stingers are thought to have a shelf life of 10 years due to the degradation of their propellant), technically gifted terrorist organizations may be able to replace worn-out components with homemade parts.

The most famous system, the Stinger, was supplied to the Afghan Mujahideen by the CIA in the 1980s, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

It is difficult to know how many missiles and launchers were supplied to the guerrillas. Estimates range between 400-900 missiles. When the CIA launched a scheme to buy back unused missiles after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, the Mujahideen were reluctant sellers. Although the agency offered $30,000 apiece, only about 70 were returned. It is thought that today around 100 Stingers remain in Afghanistan.

In December 2002, troops from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) were offered some Stinger missiles by local arms dealers for $250,000 each. And it is not just Stingers that have turned up. A year ago, U.S. troops seized HN-5 missiles (a Chinese version of the SA-7). Osama bin Laden`s bodyguards are thought to surround him with a phalanx of such weapons, protecting their boss from air attack. In March 2002, Abu Zubaydah, an alleged high-ranking Al Qaeda operative, reportedly admitted that his organization has such missiles. Questioning of bin Laden`s alleged chief of operations, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, following his arrest in Pakistan in March, may yield more information on the organization`s inventory.

The SA-7 or some variant is being made under license in countries like China, Egypt, North Korea, and Yugoslavia. SA-7s can be bought for $5,000 per unit. The December 4, 2002 Jane`s Defence Weekly estimated that "several thousand" are in circulation. SA-7s can be found all over the world. Hizbollah is believed to have acquired some, and on May 8, 2001, Israeli authorities confiscated four SA-7s being smuggled on the Lebanese-flagged ship Santorini. Hizbollah is also thought to have acquired Stingers from the Mujahideen, as well as some Chinese Qianwei/QW-1 Advanced Guard missiles, the origins of which are unknown.

Shipments to terrorist groups take place in a murky underworld that is difficult to penetrate, where transfers fall below the usual international accounting methods for state-to-state military sales. For instance, Sri Lanka`s Tamil Tigers are thought to have SA-7s, SA-14s, and Chinese HN-5/SA-7s. They may also have acquired Stingers from the Greek November 17 guerrilla movement and the Kurdish Worker`s Party.

Some attacks are falsely attributed to shoulder-launched missiles. Rocket-propelled grenades, with a range of 984 feet (300 meters) can do just as much damage to low-flying aircraft-witness the destruction of a U.S. Black Hawk helicopter in Somalia in October 1993. But incidents involving those weapons are often reported as Manpads attacks, making it difficult to verify exactly how often the latter are used.

And the proliferation of shoulder-launched missiles may not be as dire as it appears. It`s not easy to use one of these missiles to down a civilian airliner. Although they are often called "fire and forget" weapons-one points at the target, pulls the trigger, and the missile does the rest-the reality is more complex. Chris Bishop, a military expert and writer, points out that with the British "Blowpipe," the operator must continue to track the target while directing the rocket.

Although more modern weapons have infrared "seekers" to track the aircraft, Bishop argues that they are also "difficult to use, and few terrorists have sufficient training." The CIA is thought to have experienced considerable problems in teaching the Afghan Mujahideen-many of whom were illiterate-to use the Stinger. Moreover, the operator must take ground clutter into account. "You mustn`t fire too close to the ground, in case the missile gets seduced away by the sun or ground heat," says Bishop. During the war in Afghanistan, heat-seeking SA-7s, also covertly supplied to the Mujahideen by the United States via Egypt, had a habit of flying toward the sun rather than toward the target`s exhaust.

The speed of an airliner during takeoff limits the operator`s opportunities. Or as one aviation expert says, "These missiles tend to be a one-shot thing." Even if the missile hits an engine, there is no guarantee that the airliner will be destroyed: "You`d need a lucky shot that hit an engine and then caused a big fire." The modern, "high-bypass" engines fitted on airliners produce less heat than those on military aircraft, and the missiles tend to be tuned to the heat signatures of high-temperature military engines.

The steps airlines can take to minimize the risk are limited. An airline pilot cannot make the tight twists and turns to evade a missile that are routine for more agile fighter aircraft. Even if an airliner were fitted with high-temperature flares to fool a heat-seeking missile, the crew would need to know that they were under attack before launching the flares. A missile-warning system could be installed in the cockpit, but that could be expensive.

Another option might be to install the electronic countermeasures that military aircraft use to confuse incoming missiles. The Matador system is fitted to some business jets and VIP airliners, but at $5.5 million per set, the equipment is not cheap. For example, it would cost British Airways $1.75 billion to fit the system across its entire fleet. The International Air Transport Association regards such costs as prohibitive. The U.S. Air Transport Association has commented that installation would be possible, but only if the taxpayer foots the bill.

In December 2002, in the wake of the Mombasa attack, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz recommended allocating $40 million to equip Israeli airliners with missile-defense systems. Two Israeli firms, Rafael and Elta, are planning to develop a system for civilian aircraft at an estimated cost of $1.5 million per unit. There has been speculation for some time that some Israeli airliners may already be fitted with such a system.

The costs of hardening airliners against shoulder-launched missiles could be prohibitively expensive for most airlines, and any recommendation will have to be added to a long list of other security enhancements recommended since the 9/11 attacks, such as armored cockpit doors and improved airport security. As for what enhancements should take priority, there have been fewer than 30 missile incidents involving civilian aircraft, but 1,014 attempted airliner hijackings since 1947. And while uncertainty persists over the threat, it may be difficult for governments to force a more proactive approach to the problem.


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