Air Defense: Poor Little Missiles Have Lost Their Prey


p> 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 installed.

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 the Sa-7.

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.

Article Archive

Air Defense: Current 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003 2002 2001 1999