Air Defense: Marketing The Improbable

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September 20, 2021: The Russian military recently released a video showing a Russian soldier firing an Igla-S shoulder fired missile, also known as MANPADS (Man-Portable Air-Defense Systems), at a Chinese air-to-air missile and intercepting it. This was a staged event that used a new Russian air defense radars system that could send accurate alerts to numerous air defense systems and this could be used to give a MANPADS operator fire his missile at the right time to intercept another missile.

The Chinese air-to-air missile is a heat seeker with a range of 8 kilometers and designed for use by helicopters against other helicopters. This type of air-to-air missile is rarely used, but it is fast, with a max flight time of about 12 seconds. The point of the video was that the Chinese QW-2 MANPADS and several Western MANPADS, including the American Stinger, have never done this before. MANPADS users would shrug because such a situation is unheard of. The Russians were trying to increase export sales for the Igla-S and what better way to do that than stage an event showing the missile doing the seemingly impossible.

The Igla-S is known to NATO as the SA-24 and entered service in 2004. Ifla-S had long been 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 most troops, and even irregulars like Islamic terrorists, can bring down helicopters and small air transports, especially during takeoff. 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 the missile just goes for the engine exhaust, these missiles often only do minor damage to the powerful jet engines used on fighters and larger commercial jets. During the 1980s the United States provided Afghan irregulars fighting Russian occupation forces and, before Russia could develop and install countermeasures, they had to adopt restrictive tactics for their helicopter gunships and transports.

In early 2012, Israel found out that some of the 480 Russian SA-24s that had been sold to Libya, and stolen from military warehouses during the 2011 rebellion, 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 countermeasures in the form of 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-24s during 2012 and 2013 but there was no photographic proof. These countermeasures, once turned on, operate automatically. The pilot sees a light go on warning of an approaching threat that is often defeated by the countermeasures before the pilot can see it at all.

In 2011 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 in Lebanon.

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 pound thrust engines) 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 MANPADS, 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 received a lot of publicity. Most Islamic terror groups were soon aware of the problem and put that warning in training manuals often found on Islamic terrorist websites.

Helicopters engaging in air-to-air combat is one of those possible but “rarely happens” situations. The specs for Western helicopter gunships and armed transport helicopters often mention “air-to-air missile” capability in the form of MANPADS mounted on the helicopter and a fire control system that enables the pilot to fire these missiles. Few military helicopters are equipped with this sort of thing because it costs money to modify the helicopter and fire control system as well as training pilots to use it. Except for experiments, helicopter pilots do not consider the threat of attack by other helicopters using heat seeker missiles.

Most helicopters taken down by other aircraft are attacked by jets. Tests of this capability also found that the jets were actually very vulnerable to an armed helicopter because even if a fighter had a radar that could detect low, slow helicopters, they had to use their autocannon at close range to actually hit the helicopter. In test situations it was found that if the helicopter detected the oncoming fighter it had a better chance at using its own autocannon on the jet when it got close enough. The helicopters could hover and quickly drop lower while most jets have a minimum speed of several hundred kilometers an hour. In 1982 British Harrier pilots found that their vertical take off and landing jets could successfully use those same helicopter tactics against Argentine jets.

Some helicopters could also carry and use jet fighter heat seeking missiles. These are much heavier than MANPADS and have a longer range. China decided to take that concept further and develop lightweight heat seeking missiles that could only be used on helicopters against other helicopters. China never described these smaller missiles as useful in fighting low flying jets. The Chinese realized that there was no market for weapons designed for rarely encountered targets. There is little demand for weapons designed for possible but very improbable situations. Marketing professionals also know that demonstrating improbable capabilities get media attention and that means something.

 


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