- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 4, 2003


The Nov. 28 missile attacks on an Israeli charter jetliner taking off from the Mombasa, Kenya, airport with some 260 people aboard suggests a dreadful escalation in the battle with terrorists.
Thankfully, neither of the two shoulder-fired missiles hit the aircraft, but in my opinion, as a Russian veteran of the 1979-89 Soviet war in Afghanistan, this is only the first of more such attacks to come. It seems likely that only limited time separates us from when such weapons could be smuggled into and used in the United States or Europe, with high casualties.
Last month, a posting to an Internet site claimed responsibility by al Qaeda for the missile attack in Mombasa and the car bombing of the Paradise Hotel near Mombasa that resulted in 15 deaths. Two launchers and one intact missile were recovered near the airport, said reports from East Africa. Police in Mombasa identified them as old, Soviet-made "Strela" (Arrow) missiles.
Over the past three decades, nearly 30 commercial aircraft have been downed by shoulder-fired missiles, according to published reports. All were small planes and all were downed in Africa, where they were carrying weapons for the continent's furious and near-continuous wars, national leaders and their delegations, negotiators, peacekeepers or mercenaries.
But it is just a matter of time before more powerful and accurate modern anti-aircraft missiles fall into terrorist hands.
In the United States, international airports with large numbers of intercontinental flights catering not only to Americans, but foreigners diplomats, businessmen and tourists are ideal targets for such attacks.
Man-portable shoulder-launched missiles are the next logical weapon of choice for terrorists. Their deployment nearly guarantees high death tolls, in some cases perhaps killing all those aboard the plane and if the terrorists get lucky causing devastation on the ground.
Terrorist threat
Such missiles can also produce a terrifying effect on public opinion, and consequently, have high economic impact on air carriers and related industries.
Despite the fact that such missiles, especially the latest models, are considered to be high-tech weapons, there are many sources from which terrorist organizations can obtain them.
During the Soviet-Afghan war, weapons so generously supplied by the United States and other countries to Afghan "freedom fighters" (who were, and still are, really fighting to preserve their feudal past) often found their way to the black market through the mujahideen training and supply centers in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province.
These major surface-to-air missiles training centers in this province were known to Soviet military intelligence: Miramshah, Warsak, Jamrud, Arawali and Kohat.
Coincidentally, the first Stinger missile to fall into Soviet military hands was captured by a Spetsnaz (Special Forces) team south of Kandahar. Later, some "surplus" Stingers were simply bought by KhAD (the Afghan communist government's KGB counterpart) agents at the well-known weapons market at Rabati-Jali, near the Pakistani border.
During the Soviet Union's Afghan war, the mujahideen developed sophisticated tactics for engaging Soviet aircraft and helicopters. Because a guided missile was a valuable weapon, the missile team usually included an operator and his aide with one or two missiles, plus 10 to 15 fighters to protect them and capture or kill downed pilots.
Under cover of night, such a team would approach an airfield, take cover using terrain features and camouflage nets, and wait for arriving or departing aircraft. After the launch, they would retreat to a vehicle waiting in a nearby dry river bed, foothills or a green vegetation zone.
U.S. troops in danger
During current American operations in Afghanistan, such tactics can be used against U.S. air bases in Bagram, Kandahar and Khost. According to an original Soviet military-intelligence report seen by this author, these locations were the most likely spots for launching portable missiles:
Bagram air base: Chauni, Kalanasru, Kalaye-Biland, Sayad.
Kandahar air base: Mir Afzal-Kalai, Ismaelkarez, Mohammed-Gaush.
Sometimes, mujahideen "free hunt" missile teams would climb to mountain lookouts along routes favored by planes, whose pilots considered themselves to be flying at safe altitudes. In 1987, a Spetsnaz team intercepted and destroyed an enemy convoy carrying portable oxygen bottles and masks among the usual load of weapons and ammunition.
The Soviet air force used these methods to reduce losses:
Alternating routes of approach to the airfield and using a corkscrew pattern during descents and climbs.
Dispersing heat flares to divert the heat-seeking guidance system of the missiles. Often, in addition to flares dispersed by troop or cargo aircraft, planes were accompanied by a pair of helicopters firing flares and ready to engage any target on the ground.
Such flares can intercept older portable missiles like the American Redeye and Soviet Strela series, SA-7 Grail, SA-9 Gaskin and SA-13 Gopher, but new models lock on the initial target and can't be diverted by other heat sources. Even a sharp turn in the direction of the sun a maneuver favored by pilots is not so effective against newer generations of these deadly weapons.
Using special devices to decrease the heat signature of the aircraft or helicopter. From 1985, Soviet helicopters in Afghanistan were fitted with the "Lastochka" ("Swallow") a device that diverted hot exhaust gases upward and dispersed them.
Another device tested by the Soviets in Afghanistan was an optical-electronic station, which used a powerful heat-producing xenon lamp with rotating lenses to create moving infrared beams around the helicopter. These beams caused interference in the missile's guidance system, forcing it off course.
Most of the portable missiles in Afghanistan were of the older, Soviet- and Egyptian-made SA Strela series, but in the mid-1980s American Stingers and British Blowpipe weapons were introduced to challenge Soviet dominance of the skies.
However, according to information obtained from mujahideen missile crews captured and interrogated by Soviet intelligence, they were disappointed with the Blowpipe's performance. Its disadvantages were low accuracy, heavy weight and a complicated guidance system.
Stingers the best
Afghan fighters admired American Stingers, but criticized weak points: If the target-locking system was deployed, but for some reasons the missile was not fired for more than a minute, the battery pack lost its charge and had to be replaced. A relatively narrow angle of target acquisition also required well-trained operators.
Unfortunately, Afghanistan is not the only source of such weapons for terrorists. They are available in many countries with weak or corrupt regimes and in military-conflict zones.
Chechen separatists acquired such missiles from Russian military stockpiles after declaring independence in 1992. Later, they managed to obtain the much more accurate and deadly SA-16 Gimlet (in Russian, "Igla," or "Needle") missiles. Last August, Chechen fighters used one to shoot down a Russian transport helicopter, killing 118.
Since Chechen separatists have established close relations with al Qaeda and many even fought for the Taliban against the Americans in Afghanistan, there is no doubt that this type of modern shoulder-launched missile is also available to terrorists. Russia sells such portable missile complexes and its modernized SA-18 version to India, Malaysia, Brazil and other countries and is negotiating its sale to Iran.
It is unlikely that American Stingers delivered to Afghan mujahideen in the '80s are still operational. Moreover, Stingers have friend-or-foe recognition capability. They can hardly be fired at U.S. military aircraft equipped with responders unless terrorists learn how to disable the equipment.
The question is whether all civilian aircraft have such responders. Even if they do, terrorists can target non-American carriers.
"Fresh" Stingers could be obtained on the huge black market. Even if older models are smuggled into the United States, they cause an imminent danger.
Jetliners based in the United States or nations that are part of the anti-terror coalition are most likely to be attacked. The good news is that it is next to impossible to bring down a huge civilian jet using one portable missile. It is only possible if the terrorists get a lucky shot, causing extensive damage to aircraft flaps, or if a panicked crew loses control.
The warheads of such missiles weigh no more than three or four pounds. Damaged passenger jets have more than one engine and pilots can attempt an emergency landing. Remarkably, when an aircraft engine is hit by such a missile, much more damage is caused by the sharp turbine blades torn from the shaft body and flying in all directions than by the explosion itself.
It is hard to predict when and how terrorists might try to use these deadly "needles" against civilian planes in the United States. But there is no doubt about one thing even a single, non-fatal missile attack would deliver a devastating blow to the air-travel industry, which is still recovering from the painful aftermath of September 11.
Timothy Gusinov spent two tours of duty in Afghanistan during the 1980s with Russian military advisers, Soviet troops and Spetsnaz (Special Forces). He speaks Farsi and Dari. He was wounded twice and his medals include the Order of the Red Star. He was promoted to the rank of major at age 28. He currently lives in the United States.

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