Russia's shoulder-fired surface to air missiles: Now an Islamist terrorist threat

By Christopher W. Holton
Special to World
Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Originally designed to threaten U.S. and allied military aircraft in the event of conventional war, today these Russian weapons and their Chinese knock-offs pose one of the greatest terrorist threats in the hands of Al Qaida.

Shoulder-fired surface to air missiles, sometimes referred to as MANPADS (Man Portable Air Defense Systems), are not new, but they have emerged recently as one of the major worries for counter-terrorists around the globe for two primary reasons:

1. There have been no fewer than 4 major incidents involving shoulder-fired SAMs in the past two years:

    + The downing of a US Army CH-47 Chinook in Iraq with heavy loss of life two months ago.
    + The strike by a shoulder-fired SAM on a civilian cargo aircraft near Baghdad International in the fall.
    + The strike by a shoulder-fired SAM on a USAF C-17 Globemaster II transport aircraft near Baghdad International within the past month.
    + An unsuccessful attempt by al Qaida terrorists to shoot down an Israeli airliner in Mombassa, Kenya in November of 2002.

2. In the wake of the September 11th attacks, many terrorism experts feel that terrorists, particularly Islamist terrorists, will continue to attempt to target civilian airliners but, due to increased airport security, through means other than hijacking. Portable SAMs offer an obvious alternative. Already the FBI believes that there were 29 shoulder-fired SAM attacks on civil aircraft from the 1970s through 2002. Fortunately, none of those attacks occurred in America, but how long can we depend on that good fortune to hold out?

I prefer to refer to these weapons in the hands of terrorists as shoulder-fired SAMs rather than the more "catchy" name MANPADS because, in the hands of Al Qaida, Hizbollah and others, these weapons are anything but defensive.

Shoulder-fired SAMs present a dangerous threat for a variety of reasons:

    + They are proven lethal.
    + They are portable; weighing only 50 pounds or so and under 6 feet in length, these systems can be transported in the trunk of a car or in a minivan and operated by a single terrorist.
    + Many of these systems, particularly the Russian-made examples are simple to use and rugged. Contrary to some press reports, they do not have a particularly short shelf-life.
    + Shoulder-fired SAMs have been proliferated around the globe and are likely within the budget of most Islamist terrorist groups.
    + The Lexington Institute reports that shoulder-fired SAMs are already in the hands of terrorist groups that have targeted the United States in the past, namely Al Qaida, Hizbollah, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

The Stinger: The best, but not the first and not the most common

One common misconception about shoulder-fired SAMs is that the U.S.-made Stinger is the weapon of choice among the terrorists. In fact, much like Kleenex has become synonymous with tissue and Xerox with photocopy, the name "Stinger" has come to be incorrectly used in some circles as a generic term for all the different shoulder-fired SAMs in the world.

While the Stinger is no doubt the most advanced of these weapons, it was not the first to be developed and, most importantly for the purposes of our discussion, it is certainly not the most common shoulder-fired SAM in the world today. That honor goes to the Soviet/Russian SA-7 Grail and its several variants, the SA-14, SA-16 and SA-18. Upwards of 50,000 of these missile systems are believed to have been manufactured.

Background and types

Though there is a wide range in capability and sophistication, all shoulder-fired SAMs work on the same basic principle: an infra-red seeker in the nose of the missile detects a heat image, most commonly an engine exhaust signature and then, after launch, homes in on that heat source.

The original Soviet shoulder-fired SAM was the now-infamous SA-7. Though primitive in some aspects, the Soviets managed to manufacture literally hundreds of thousands of these weapons. This is the shoulder-fired SAM our forces are most likely to encounter in the hands of terrorists around the world. Countermeasures such as flares, baffling on exhausts and other types of jamming systems have been developed in the west specifically to confuse the SA-7. This is why it is rare that such a missile makes a successful attack on a military aircraft. Later variants of this system are more modern and are tougher to counter. On the other hand, few airliners in the world have any means of countering even the relatively primitive SA-7, which is why prominent counter-terrorist officials are worried about the proliferation of these simple, robust and easy to use missiles. The earliest versions of the SA-7 are "tailchasers" meaning that they must allow a target to pass by and expose its hot exhaust before achieving a lock-on. This obviously limits the SA-7's usefulness against combat aircraft, but not against civil aircraft.

The Russians later developed the more modern SA-14 Gremlin, which has a more modern infra-red seeker and propellant. The Gremlin is capable of attacking aircraft from widely varying angles and is much more resistant to decoy flares and other countermeasures. Because the launcher and missile look very similar to the SA-7, this system is often misidentified as the SA-7 and, because it is believed to be proliferated around the world, there is every probability that it is in the hands of terrorists.

The next evolution in the Russian series of shoulder-fired SAMs was the SA-18 Grouse, which incorporates several improvements that increase the range and speed of the launched missile. Though the numerical order would indicate otherwise, the latest Russian system is the SA-16 Gimlet, which was introduced 3 years after the SA-18. Very similar to the SA-18, the SA-16s major improvements are in the area of propellants, seekers and resistance to countermeasures.

Very often, when you see and hear media reports referring to "Stingers" and "SA-7s" the actual weapon in use is the SA-16/18.

Red China copied the Soviet/Russian SA-7 and dubbed it the HN-5, sometimes referred to as the HY-5. The Red Chinese have continued to improve and evolve their shoulder-fired SAM technology, developing the QW series. The Chinese boast that their QW-1 is the most advanced shoulder-fired SAM in the world, surpassing the U.S. Stinger in capability. Whether or not this is true, it is certainly worrisome. Not only might U.S. military pilots one day face the weapons in a conflict with China, but China has also supplied these weapons to Pakistan and, given the Islamist sympathies of many in that country, it would not be too hard to believe that the QW-1 could end up in the hands of Al Qaida terrorists.

The most modern Russian-made shoulder-fired SAM is the SA-18. Whereas the relatively primitive SA-7 is seen as mostly effective against helicopters and civilian aircraft, the SA-18 is much more sophisticated and was designed to engage advanced strike aircraft, such as the F-16, A-10 and F/A-18.

According to Jane's Intelligence Review, some 27 terrorist/guerrilla organizations possess shoulder-fired SAMs around the world. The most dangerous groups is undoubtedly Al Qaida which is known to operate the SA-7 and its variants and is believed in some circles to have Stingers as well. Even so, there is no evidence that Al Qaida has ever used a Stinger missile. The assumption that Al Qaida has Stingers stems from the erroneous belief that the CIA supplied Stingers to Osama Bin Laden for use against Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The reality is that the CIA denies ever having had a relationship with Bin Laden's group, though they did supply Stingers to other mujihadeen fighters during that war (and they were used with great effect against the feared Soviet Mi-24 Hind assault helicopter). On the other hand, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that some Stingers could have ended up in the hands of Al Qaida via the black market, which seems to be the primary means through which these weapons are transferred.

Besides Al Qaida, other Islamist terrorists have used shoulder-fired SAMs, most notably Hizbollah and Chechen rebels. In the case of Hizbollah, it is widely believed that the missiles used were SA-7s, with mixed results. In April 1999, Hizbollah terrorists tried unsuccessfully to shoot down Israeli F-16s while unconfirmed reports indicate that a Hizbollah SA-7 did shoot down an Israeli unmanned drone.

In the case of the Chechens, there is some evidence to indicate that the Stingers once used in Afghanistan found their way to Chechnya where rebels shot down an SU-25 Frogfoot attack aircraft and a SU-24 Fencer reconnaissance aircraft on the same day in October 2000. It is unlikely that the SA-7 could have accomplished these feats and the fact that Al Qaida is known to be involved in Chechnya does lend credence to the idea that they may be in possession of some of the deadly Stingers. On the other hand, these may also have been SA-18s. The new Russian Army has been known to sell its weapons on the black market, even to its enemies.

While weapons such as the SA-18 pose a threat to high-performance combat aircraft, even the relatively primitive SA-7 poses a deadly threat to civilian aircraft, which are completely unequipped to deal with any kind of SAM threat at this point. A 747 on take off from any of the hundreds of international airports in the United States would make a fat target for a terrorist armed with any kind of shoulder-fired SAM. The potential for death and destruction in the air as well as on the ground in the event of such an attack would be devastating. Judging from our inability to stop the flow of illegal drugs and aliens across our porous borders, it must certainly be considered feasible for Islamist terrorists to get shoulder-fired SAMs into America.

Countering the SAM threat

Potential counterterrorism efforts with regard to the SAM threat range from installing modern jamming devices and other countermeasures on civilian airliners. This will be very expensive perhaps running as high as $25 billion according to the British American Security Information Council (BASIC). Obviously, that type of cost is something the already hard-hit airline industry cannot shoulder on its own. More to the point, installing such countermeasures systems will take a considerable amount of time time we may not have if Al Qaida already has been planning such attacks.

Another less high-tech counter would be to increase security around the perimeters of our nations airports, using National Guard and law enforcement personnel. This is easier said than done. The most modern shoulder-fired SAMs--the Stinger and the SA-18 do not require the target aircraft to be very close to the ground. That means that a terrorists need not camp out at the obvious points along a perimeter chain link fence. Armed with the most modern shoulder-fired SAMs, terrorists could still pose a lethal threat hiding in wooded or urbanized terrain miles from an airport. For instance, the Stinger flies at supersonic speeds (far faster that civil aircraft) has a range of as long as 8 kilometers and can engage targets as high as 10,000 feet. All of a sudden, one gets a full appreciation for the monumental security task at hand.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step and, though the terrorists may be a step ahead of us in the battle to protect civilian aircraft from shoulder-fired SAMs, we must move quickly to take any and all measures possible to prevent an atrocity from occurring.

Christopher Holton is the Editor of and serves on the World Tribune Board of Advisers. He has been writing about national security, defense issues and economics for more than a dozen years. He is a full-time direct response marketing consultant and lives in New Orleans with his wife and five children. He can be reached at

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