Air Defense: The Mysterious MANPADS of Mali

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July 15, 2013: An al Qaeda training center in Mali was recently found to contain printed training manuals for using shoulder fired missiles, also known as MANPADS (MAN-Portable Air-Defense Systems). The 24 page Arabic language manual was based on known al Qaeda “how to” material that has been online for years. French troops also found components of Russian SA-7 MANPADs, including empty shipping containers in several locations in Mali. But apparently no SA-7s have been successfully used in Mali. French aircraft generally operated high enough (over 2.5 kilometers) to avoid getting hit by an SA-7 and also carried countermeasures (systems that detect oncoming missiles and deploy flares) to defeat the MANPADS heat seeking guidance system. Still there was the fact that at least one class of terrorist trainees were using a MANPADS “how to manual.” The missile components indicated that al Qaeda had some SA-7 missiles, or parts of them, in Mali. These missiles may have been inoperable and just used for training.

Some Islamic terrorists do have SA-7s and other Russian missiles of that type. Last October Israeli surveillance cameras spotted the distinctive contrail of an anti-aircraft missile being fired from Gaza at an Israeli helicopter. The missile missed, either because the missile was defective or because of the anti-missile systems carried by all Israeli aircraft operating over Gaza worked. The media reported that it was an older SA-7 Russian type missile but no one could be sure because the missile fragments fell back into Gaza.

In early 2012, Israel found out that some of the 480 Russian Igla-S (SA-24) shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles that had been sold to Libya, and stolen from military warehouses during the rebellion there last year, had ended up in Gaza. 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 two years but there was no photographic proof.

Two years ago 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).

The SA-24 entered service nine years ago and is considered one of the most dangerous Russian MANPADS. The SA-24 is a post-Cold War upgrade of a design that was introduced in the early 1980s (at the same time as the American Stinger). SA-24 weighs 19 kg (42 pounds) and fires an 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.

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.

The terrorists, some of them at least, are aware of these limitations and use their missiles only against helicopters or small aircraft. The frequent failures against larger aircraft has received a lot of publicity and even the al Qaeda trainers and field commanders must be aware of it by now.

 


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