Originally designed to threaten U.S. and allied military aircraft in
the event of conventional war, today these Russian weapons ø and their
Chinese knock-offs ø 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
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
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
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 ø 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 ø 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 ø 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 www.WorldTechTribune.com 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.