Air Defense: The Russian Serial Numbers


December 14, 2011: Over the last six months Russia has cooperated with NATO in identifying some 20,000 shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles that had been sold to Libya. This was appreciated because thousands of these missiles are believed to have been stolen. The Russian supplied serial numbers have been distributed to counter-terrorism officials worldwide with the admonition to be vigilant. Many older Sa-7Bs were seized by the rebels early on and some were used against Kadaffi's aircraft. But as early as April it was reported that some had been taken by criminals or Islamic radicals and moved out of the country. NATO teams have seized 5,000 of the Libyan missiles and at least as many were destroyed from the air. But about half of Kaddafi's missiles are unaccounted for.

The most dangerous of these missiles are the recently (2004) introduced Igla-S models. Also known as the SA-24, this one is a post-Cold War upgrade of a design that was introduced the same time as the American Stinger. Igla-S weighs 19 kg (42 pounds) and fires a 11.7 kg (26 pound) missile for up to 6,000 meters. 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 Igla-S in the hands of terrorists could bring down helicopters and airliners taking off. The exact number of these missiles Russia sold to Libya has not been made public (estimates vary from hundreds to thousands). Nor is it known how many of these missiles Libya still had when the rebellion broke out earlier this year.

Many of the older (SA-7 type) missiles are no longer useable. Kaddafi has been buying and warehousing stuff like this since the 1970s (when the price of oil skyrocketed and all the oil countries suddenly had a lot more money to play with). Any of these missiles that are more than 15 years old are most likely not operational. The batteries die after a few years and after a decade the electronics are no longer reliable. After about fifteen years the rocket motor is no longer reliable, nor are the explosives in the warhead. At that point the SA-7 is more dangerous to whoever is using it than it is to any potential target. You can refurbish older missiles with new parts. But if you can get parts you can usually get new and improved missiles instead. In any event, the Russians are very careful about who they sell this stuff to. This is probably one reason why the Russians came forward with serial numbers on the Igla-S missiles they sold to Libya.

There are still newly manufactured SA-7s, or clones out there, made by Iran, China, Pakistan, and North Korea. The terrorists can get these on the black market, as well as directly from Iran. Because the trade in these missiles is considered a terrorist threat, in the last eight years the United States has destroyed over 32,000 older portable anti-aircraft missiles. The U.S. does the disposal for free and over two dozen nations have taken advantage of this service. In Iraq these missiles were hunted down and destroyed. The problem is that in the last fifty years over a million of these missiles have been manufactured. Very few were used in combat or training and many nations just let them sit in a bunker, rather than go to the expense of safely dismantling them. Many of these older missiles have gotten on to the black market where they have acquired a bad reputation because so many of them, not surprisingly, fail to work.

Not as capable as more modern designs (like the U.S. Stinger) there are still lots of SA-7s available with good batteries. Several were fired in Iraq in the last six years, although without bringing anything down. 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, 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.

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 9 kg (20 pound) missiles, with 1-1.4 kg (2-3) pound warheads, could destroy or seriously damage.

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 its 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 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 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. Newer models of these missiles will go after any part of the aircraft it is closest to.

Many countries, with poor inventory control (like Egypt and Pakistan), 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 and SA-24). 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.

Experience has shown that for every ten working SA-7s fired, you are likely to bring down a smaller aircraft or helicopter. An SA-18 is about twice as effective. 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.

Most NATO helicopters and aircraft are equipped with missile detection and protection (lasers or flares) systems. Twenty-five year old Stingers, even if they were still in working order, would be no more effective than some of the more modern Russian type missiles on the black market.




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