November 23, 2012: Syrian rebels appear to have Russian SA-24 shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. At least that’s what recent photos from Syria appear to show. Syrian rebels have kept their cause in the news, at least on the Internet, by sending a constant stream of cell phone photos and videos. Some of the recent videos indicate rebel fighters carrying Russian SA-24 missiles. Actually, they might be SA-14, SA-16, or SA-18 missiles in some cases. Whatever missile they have, this is bad news for the Syrian Air Force and apparently accounts for the recent change in tactics. That is, the Syrians are staying at higher altitudes which make their unguided bombs even less accurate.
Syrian rebels have been seen with these portable missiles for several months now but until recently these were all believed to be older SA-7 missiles captured from Syrian troops. SA-24s have never been seen outside of government control until recently (when they were spotted in Gaza). This happened earlier this year, Israel spotted some of the 480 Russian Igla-S (SA-24) missiles that had been sold to Libya and stolen from military warehouses during the rebellion there last year. Older SA-7s were taken as well. Some SA-7s and SA-24s have shown up in Gaza in the hands of Islamic terrorist group Hamas. Most Israeli and NATO helicopters and aircraft are equipped with missile detection and protection (lasers or flares) systems. Such systems on Israeli AH-64 helicopter gunships operating over Gaza are thought to have defeated several SA-24 attacks in the last year but, unlike the recent attack, there was no photographic proof.
Last year Russia supplied Libyan missile serial numbers, which were distributed to counter-terrorism officials worldwide with the admonition to be vigilant. Apparently the SA-24 thieves sold many of the SA-24s to Iran, which in turn gave some to Hamas and Hezbollah (another Iran backed Islamic terror group in Lebanon). Hezbollah has been operating in Syria but there’s no reason for them to have SA-24s with them (unless their commanders believed all the Iranian and Russian media reports that the rebels are supported by Israel and the United States, such assistance possibly including air support). No Middle Eastern or NATO country has bought SA-24s (only Brazil, Libya, Russia, Slovenia, Venezuela, and Vietnam have). The new Libyan government may have recovered some of the SA-24s its predecessor (Kaddafi) bought and shipped them to the rebels (along with the many other weapons Libya has been sending the rebels). Wherever they came from, there is little doubt that the SA-24s are there.
The SA-24 entered service eight years ago and is considered one of the most dangerous Russian portable anti-aircraft missiles. The SA-24 is a post-Cold War upgrade of a design that was introduced at the same time as the American Stinger. SA-24 weighs 19 kg (42 pounds) and fires a 11.7 kg (26 pound) missile for up to 6,000 meters (19,000 feet). The 14.3 kg Stinger fires its 10.1 kg missile out to 8,000 meters, but both systems have similar resistance to countermeasures and a warhead of about the same size (2-3 kg/4.4-6.6 pounds). The SA-24 in the hands of terrorists could bring down helicopters and airliners taking off. The SA-24 is a heat seeker but it does not just go for the engine exhaust but rather any part of the aircraft. This makes the SA-24 more dangerous because if they just go for the engine exhaust these missiles often do little damage.
Then there are the other Russian missiles seen in Syria. The SA-14 is 1.52 meters (4.7 feet) long, weighs 15.9 kg (35 pounds), and has a max range of 4,100 meters. It can't hit anything above 2,300 meters (7,100 feet) and has a 1.36 kg (3 pound) warhead. It entered service in 1974, and is called the Strela-3 by the Russians. The primary advantage of the SA-14 over the SA-7 is improved reliability and a better sensor, which can more easily defeat countermeasures. The SA-18 entered service in 1980, and the SA-16 three years later (yeah, that appears out of sequence but that’s a long story). Both are incremental improvements on the SA-14 and roughly the same size and weight. The current version of the SA-7 weighs 15 kg (33 pounds) has a max range of 4,000 meters and max altitude of 2,300 meters.
Against jet fighters or large transports with powerful engines, the missiles that just home in on heat cause some damage to the tailpipe but usually fail 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 its 17,000 pound thrust engines, were even more difficult to bring down when only the engine exhaust was targeted. 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 ends 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. But these older missiles homed 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 Russian portable anti-aircraft missiles (usually older SA-7s), killing over 500 people. But more recent missile designs go for any part of the aircraft, although engine heat is still used to find the aircraft.