LONDON — Britain has secretly bought dozens of sophisticated Russian surface-to-air missiles, some of which are believed to have fallen into terrorist hands, to develop countermeasures against them.
There are significant fears that the weapon, which can be packed into a golf bag and assembled and fired very rapidly by one person with minimal training, will be used to shoot at civil and military aircraft.
Defense experts have spent the past year experimenting with the shoulder-launched missile in order to protect British aircraft and service personnel.
The Daily Telegraph has withheld information on the make of the missile on the advice of the committee on press self-censorship in the interest of national security.
The weapon reportedly has been purchased by Libya in a multimillion-dollar deal. Both Syria and Iran are in negotiations to buy hundreds, and Vietnam, Brazil, India and Ukraine already have it in their armory.
But there are worries that in Iraq the missile has fallen into the hands of insurgents who could use it against British or American transport planes carrying hundreds of troops.
Britain used arms dealers experienced in the Russian market to approach a state-owned arms manufacturer to purchase the system. The missiles and launchers were imported into Britain in an estimated $4.9 million deal.
Defense Ministry scientists and gunners from the Royal Artillery have test-fired them at British bases. Britain is thought to be trying to buy more missiles for testing, with the results to be shared with the United States.
The SAM flies higher, farther and faster and homes in on images as well as heat, making it capable of taking out cruise missiles in flight. It is very rugged, able to survive being submerged in water for 30 minutes or dropped onto a concrete surface from 6 feet.
It is the ideal weapon for terrorists, who “no doubt” have some in their armory, according to defense sources.
In January a London businessman, Hemant Lakhani, was imprisoned for 47 years in the United States after he attempted to buy 50 missiles in a sting operation that involved the CIA and Russian security services.
There have been reports in the Russian press that the SAM has been passed to French terrorists intent on attacking a civilian aircraft in France or elsewhere in the European Union. There has also been an intelligence report that up to 150 missiles were stolen from a military depot in Georgia.
Earlier versions of the SAM were responsible for destroying at least eight American and British aircraft in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, an American F-16 in Kosovo in 1999 and a Russian Mi-26 helicopter, killing 121 troops it was carrying in Chechnya in 2002.
The U.S. government already has begun tests on a laser device that can be bolted to an airliner to disrupt heat-seeking missiles.