Air Defense: June 13, 2005


Despite an enormous number (several thousand) of MANPADS (shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles) in circulation throughout Iraq, no one knows how often the enemy has attempted to use them. The uncertainty arises because most of the terrorists lack training in the use of MANPADS. Thus, when they try to use them, they often fail because they misjudge the range of the missiles, the types of targets against which they can be used, and their accuracy, not to mention maintenance requirements. 

By one estimate, there have been some 140-150 instances in which the missiles are thought to have been fired. If the number is correct, then it is estimated that fewer than 10 percent of MANPADS attacks have actually caused any damage. The rest were improperly aimed, or fired at excessive ranges, or struck intervening non-critical targets, or fizzled due to improper maintenance, storage, or handling.

In two years, the enemy forces have not attempted to establish a training program to show many of their people how to handle MANPADS. This says something about the organization and motivation of the anti-government forces. There appear to be many small  organizations, with little communication and cooperation between them. 

But the mere threat of these missiles has forced coalition and Iraqi aircraft to adopt special landing and takeoff procedures that make flying rather more uncomfortable. The missiles have also had an impact on combat operations. The U.S. Air Force, which controls the use the AC-130 gunships, refuses to allow them to be used during daylight. The main reason for this prohibition, which decreases enemy losses, and gets Americans killed, is the possible presence of MANPADS.

The U.S. Air Force has only 21 gunships (eight AC-130H Spectre, and 13 AC-130U Spooky). Four more AC-130Us are in production. The last time an AC-130 was lost was at Khafji, Saudi Arabia, during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The aircraft was leaving the combat zone at sunrise, and was visible to Iraqi gunners in the area. 

However, AC-130s normally operate at 12,000 feet, or higher. The main reason for operating this high  is to hide the loud sound of the AC-130s four turboprop engines (which lets the bad guys know where the aircraft is), and to keep it out of range of ground fire (small arms and MANPADS). The AC-130 can still hit targets from as far as 20,000 feet up. But the air force is worried about some of Saddams old anti-aircraft guns that might be in the wrong hands. The 14.5mm anti-aircraft machine-gun can hurt aircraft at up to about 15,000 feet, and the 37mm auto-cannon can reach up to 20,000 feet. 

The air force also complains that the sensors on the AC-130 are optimized for night work. Thats true, but the stuff also works during daylight. The air force says that if theres a real emergency (not defined exactly what that is), they will allow the AC-130s to operate during the day. 

Meanwhile, the MANPADS remain something of an invisible threat. Some 14.5mm machine-guns have been encountered (usually mounted on a pickup truck and hidden away), but no 37mm anti-aircraft guns have been seen since early 2003. 


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