War Stories


The Iraqi insurgents’ surface-to-air missiles won’t win the war, but they could wreak havoc on civilian aviation.

Given the growing intensity of the combat in Iraq, the downing of two helicopters and the resulting deaths of 22 soldiers in the last week comes as little surprise. The destruction of a Black Hawk today, reportedly by a rocket-propelled grenade, and a Chinook on Sunday by a shoulder-fired missile were all but statistical inevitabilities in a country with a deepening insurgence and 600,000 or more tons of largely unsecured armaments.

But the attacks should also send a shudder through anyone who flies, even if they never board anything but commercial wide-body airliners and never venture within 5,000 miles of Iraq. By removing the locks from Iraq’s enormous stores of armaments, including “vast, unknown” quantities of anti-aircraft weapons, as Air Force Gen. John Handy, commander of U.S. Transportation Command, put it several months ago, the fighting in Iraq has virtually ensured that some of these arms will wind up in the hands of terrorists who will want to use them outside the current war zone.

Though rocket-propelled grenades pose a real threat, especially at unsecured airports, shoulder-fired missiles are far more dangerous because of their greater range—some can strike aircraft 5,000 meters away—and the accuracy of their heat-seeking sensors. In the parlance of security types, these missiles are “MANPADS,” man-portable air defense systems. History has not recorded who devised this moniker and acronym, which sounds more like a male continence aid than a surface-to-air missile, but there is nothing remotely funny about these weapons. At least 500,000 MANPADS have been produced worldwide since their appearance in the mid-1960s. The Chinook that was shot down last Sunday is believed to have been felled by an SA-7, a Soviet-designed weapon that is stockpiled in some 70 countries.

Watching the video footage of the smoldering helicopter last weekend, it was hard not to think of Afghanistan in the 1980s, where U.S.-armed mujahideen using shoulder-fired missiles—mostly the more effective American-made Stinger, but also some captured SA-7s—destroyed at least 270 Soviet aircraft. Iraq may now be attracting jihadists from far and wide but, at least in the air, it will not become Afghanistan, where the Stingers had a real impact on Soviet fighting ability. All U.S. combat aircraft, including helicopters, are supposed to be equipped with “countermeasures”—either flares that divert the heat-seeking missiles or more sophisticated infrared devices that jam them.

There have been conflicting reports about whether the Chinook had such countermeasures installed and whether it fired flares. If an account that claims flares were ignited is correct, it is possible that the helicopter suffered a direct hit fired from a point closer than the missile’s minimum range—closer, that is, than the distance within which the heat-seeking sensor would normally correct course and home in on an aircraft. A straight shot like this would leave insufficient time for the countermeasures to divert the weapon. In any case, even the best of these devices are estimated to perform effectively just 90 percent to 95 percent of the time. The insurgents have been targeting U.S. aircraft with shoulder-fired missiles two or three times a week. So, assume about 50 attempts since May, and our aircraft are, in fact, faring well—avoiding hits 98 percent of the time. (The better than expected performance can be attributed to the evasive maneuvers of pilots who expect to be fired at and the mediocre skills of the attackers.) As the shooters become increasingly proficient, there will be more weeks like this one. Sporadic shoot-downs will affect U.S. morale, especially at home, but MANPADS are unlikely to have a significant effect on military operations.

They could, however, eventually wreak havoc on civilian aviation. The Iraqi opposition’s missile hoard is bad news for Iraq and the U.S. reconstruction effort, and it postpones still further the day when large numbers of business travelers can start flowing into the country to reconnect it to the global economy. No major airline in the world has countermeasures installed on its aircraft, and it is difficult to imagine any of them scheduling regular service to Baghdad anytime soon. (The airport was supposed to open on July 15, but the missile threat has kept it closed.)

Moving the weapons out of Iraq will make an already significant danger significantly—possibly exponentially—worse. Thousands of MANPADS are already missing from national arsenals, and MANPADS and RPGs have been used by terrorists and guerrilla armies in at least 40 attacks, claiming more than 700 lives. The majority of these events occurred in war zones, most of them in Africa—the most significant kill took place in 1994, when Hutu rebels used an SA-7 to destroy the aircraft carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi, triggering the Rwandan genocide.

At least two dozen terrorists groups, including al-Qaida, Hezbollah, Colombia’s FARC, and Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers, are believed to possess shoulder-fired missiles. In January of 2002, Israeli commandos boarded a freighter in the Red Sea that was carrying 40 tons of weapons, including four SA-7s, to Palestinians from Iran. The relatively small number of terrorist attacks relative to the number of loose MANPADS probably reflects the defensive value terrorists have placed on these weapons should their camps or hideouts be attacked from the air.

That picture, however, has changed with the rise of al-Qaida. Members of the group have said that they taught Somali militiamen how to shoot down helicopters using RPGs, thus claiming indirect responsibility for the Black Hawk Down incident. In 1993, on Osama Bin Laden’s orders, an airplane was purchased in Texas for ferrying Stingers and other arms from al-Qaida stockpiles in Afghanistan and Pakistan to the group’s headquarters, then located in Sudan. (It isn’t known if the weapons were actually moved.) In the late 1990s, U.S. authorities received information on two separate occasions about planned MANPADS attacks that were to be carried out abroad by al-Qaida or an affiliated group. Security forces took emergency measures, and no firings took place.

Since 9/11, al-Qaida’s determination to use the weapons offensively has grown. In May of last year, a MANPADS launcher was found two miles from a runway at Prince Sultan Airbase in Saudi Arabia, then the largest U.S. installation in the country. Saudi officials later said that 13 al-Qaida members had been arrested in connection with that discovery.

In November 2002, al-Qaida broke the taboo on firing at commercial jets outside war zones when operatives launched two SA-7s at an Israeli jet as it took off from Mombassa, Kenya, for Tel Aviv. The attack failed because the shooters fired too early because of poor training or panic. In February 2003, hundreds of troops, armored vehicles, and surveillance aircraft were deployed to London’s Heathrow Airport for a week after British authorities received information about a possible MANPADS attack.

After a slow start, the Bush administration has begun to recognize the dimensions of the threat. International measures to reduce stockpiles of MANPADS and control their transfer have been agreed upon at this year’s G-8 Summit and at last month’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Bangkok. In Managua this week, Colin Powell tried unsuccessfully to convince the Nicaraguan military to destroy the 2,500 SA-7s and other MANPADS it possesses.

The Transportation Safety Administration is evaluating different countermeasures for possible installation on commercial jets, but it could take five years and something in the vicinity of $10 billion to make that happen. Undoubtedly, senior policymakers have recognized that even a single unsuccessful attempt to target a commercial plane in American airspace—say the missile misses the aircraft by 25 meters—would probably result in air traffic being grounded across much or all of the country. Who, after all, will fly if they suspect there may be more missiles out there? Who would OK the resumption of flying without knowing that it was safe? The economic consequences could be staggering.

The administration’s efforts, while right-minded, pale next to the specter of jihadists streaming into Iraq and, in yet another unintended consequence of the occupation, creating a supply pipeline to al-Qaida. In the Washington Post last October, I wrote, “Even with U.S. special forces combing the country, the collapse of the Iraqi regime could prove to be the greatest proliferation disaster in history.” I was thinking about chemical or biological weapons materials—back then everyone was sure they were present—that I thought might be “privatized” by unhappy former security service colonels. Now the same may be true of conventional weapons. While a MANPADS attack would lack the special horror of one with WMD, the damage could be comparable or greater.