September 10, 2007: Portable
(shoulder fired) anti-aircraft missiles have been a threat to civilian aviation
for decades, but never enough of a threat to persuade airlines to equip their
aircraft with countermeasures, or to discourage people from flying. The issue
of "protecting civil aviation from these missiles" keeps coming up. But nothing
gets done. Why?
In the last few years, the
U.S. and Britain have bought Russian portable anti-aircraft missiles, and used
them to test the vulnerability of civilian airliners. For obvious reasons, the
results of this project are kept secret. At the same time, U.S. government
efforts to get airlines to equip their aircraft with anti-missile equipment
keep running into obstacles. The main problem is that there have been so few
missile attacks on commercial aircraft (none in the U.S. or Britain, and very
few anywhere else). So the airlines are reluctant to equip their fleets with
the expensive (several million dollars per aircraft) systems. The airlines know
that these anti-missile systems will add to the maintenance burden. The systems have been used by military
aircraft for years, and have a maintenance track record. It's another complex
item that can fail, and delay a flight. The cost will add a few dollars to each
passengers ticket, and will take aircraft out of service to have the systems
There's also the potential for
lawsuits from damage done when you get a false alert. The systems are so
expensive because they use lasers to blind any missile (rather than flares,
used in older systems, and even more of a problem when there is a false alarm.)
The airlines believe that such systems might, in the end, cause more of a
threat than they protect everyone from.
But the threat is real. Sort
of. While there are thousands of these missiles out there on the blackmarket,
nearly all of them are older models, and many are believed to be inoperable.
For example, when the U.S. returned to Afghanistan in 2001, there was an effort
to recover Stinger portable anti-aircraft missiles left behind in the 1980s.
Some 2,000 of these missiles were given out in the 1980s, to Afghans fighting
Russian invaders. Most of the missiles were not used, and most were stolen,
instead of being returned to American control. More for political reasons, than
practical ones, the effort to recover unused Stingers continues. The batteries
died over a decade ago, and the rocket propellant has gone bad as well.
Moreover, you cannot just get some geek to cobble together new batteries. The
"Stinger battery" also contains cooling elements that make the
missile seeker work (by allowing it to pick up the hot exhaust of a jet
engine.) The rocket motor is only good for 15 years (after that it will start
to degrade and give erratic performance.) Replacing the rocket motor is even
more difficult that trying to rig replacement batteries. In other words, those
1980s era Stingers are useless unless you replace most of the components. All
portable anti-aircraft missiles have similar problems.
The real danger is from
Russian SA-7 portable anti-aircraft missiles. Not as capable as the Stinger,
there are still lots of Sa-7s available, many of recent manufacture and with
good batteries. Several have been fired in Iraq recently, although without
bringing down anything. In Afghanistan, there are lots of small aircraft and
helicopters flying around that are very vulnerable to an old-tech missile like
During the 1980s, the Afghans
got their hands on lots of Sa-7s, fired over 500 of them, and brought down 47
aircraft and helicopters, and damaged 18 others. During the Vietnam war, 528
Sa-7s were fired, bringing down 45 aircraft and helicopters, and damaging six
others. Note that it that only about ten percent of Sa-7s fired actually
destroy an aircraft, and a rather small aircraft (usually a helicopter) at
that. Larger airliners, like the Airbus's, and 757s, 767s and 747s, have not
been brought down because these missiles were not designed to take on aircraft
with such large and powerful engines.
These missiles were originally
intended for use against jet fighters operating low over the battlefield, but
the reality turned out to be different. The most likely targets encountered
were helicopters, or propeller driven transports. These aircraft proved to be
just the sort of thing twenty pound missiles with 2-3 pound warheads could
destroy. Against jet fighters with powerful engines, the missiles caused some
damage to the tailpipe, but usually failed to bring down the jet. This was
first noted during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, where the Egyptians fired
hundreds of SA-7s at Israeli A-4 light bombers. Most of the A-4s, with their 11,187
pounds of thrust engines, survived the encounter. Larger jets, like the F-4 and
it's 17,000 pound thrust engines, were even more difficult to bring down.
Smaller commercial jets, like the 737 or DC-9 (each using two 14,000 pounds of
thrust engines) have proved vulnerable. But a 757 has much larger engines, with
43,000 pounds of thrust, and the 747 is 63,000. Moreover, the rear end of jet
engines are built to take a lot of punishment from all that hot exhaust spewing
out. Put a bird into the front of the engine and you can do some real damage,
and that happens much more frequently. But these missiles home in on heat, and
all of that is at the rear end of the engine. Since the 1970s, about 40
commercial aircraft have been brought down by Sa-7s, killing over 500 people.
Most of these losses have been in Africa, and the victims are usually small,
two engine aircraft.
Russia no longer makes the
Sa-7, but does manufacture more modern versions, closer to the Stinger in
capabilities. Egypt and Pakistan do still make versions of the Sa-7. There are
still tens of thousands of recently manufactured Sa-7s out there, as well as
many of the more modern versions (like the Sa-18). These are the missiles you
have to worry about. Many Sa-7s have been found in Iraq and Afghanistan, and
some Sa-18s have shown up in Iraq. An
Sa-18 is about twice as effective as an Sa-7, but is still no super weapon.
These missiles are designed to be used by untrained troops, and take some rough
handling in the field. One thing that discourages their use, aside from the
fact that most will not bring something down, is the fact that they do not have
a long range (about four kilometers), and leave a distinctive smoke and flame
trail that shows nearby troops or police where the missiles were fired from.
These angles should not be underestimated, for they appear to be a major
impediment to more widespread use of the missiles.