KABUL, Afghanistan — Taliban militants used a heat-seeking, surface-to-air missile to attack a Western aircraft over Afghanistan for the first time last week, coalition military sources say.
The attack with a weapon thought to have been smuggled across the border with Iran represents a worrisome increase in the capability of the militants that Western commanders had long feared.
The sources said the Taliban attempted to bring down an American C-130 Hercules airplane flying over the southwestern province of Nimroz on July 22. The crew reported that a missile system locked on to their aircraft and that a missile was fired.
It closed in on the large C-130, pursuing it as the pilots made a series of violent evasive maneuvers and jettisoned flares to confuse the heat sensors in the nose of the surface-to-air missile, or SAM.
Crew members said they saw what they thought was a missile passing very close to the aircraft. The C-130 was not damaged in the attack.
NATO officials on Friday refused to confirm or deny that such an attack had taken place.
“If there was such an incident of the type you describe in Nimroz, it is classified,” a NATO spokesman said. “I can’t release it, if in fact it did occur.”
However, a surface-to-air missile alert was put out for Western aircraft traveling in the southwest of Afghanistan in the last week, which affected civilian and military aircraft.
It was confirmed by civilian air operators in Helmand province. The alert remains in place.
Western military commanders have been aware of concerted efforts by the Taliban to obtain shoulder-launched, surface-to-air missiles called MANPADS (man-portable air-defense system).
The recent attack was probably with a SAM-7 shoulder-launched missile, an early model of Soviet or Chinese origin, the sources said. Though relatively primitive, they are still a potent weapon, particularly against low-flying helicopters, such as the workhorse Chinook transporters used by NATO forces in the southern Helmand province.
The C-130 attacked in Nimroz was flying at 11,000 feet at the time of the attack, which is within the 1.5- to 3.4-mile range of a shoulder-launched missile system such as the SAM-7.
Though the West supplied hundreds of sophisticated Stinger heat-seeking missiles to the Afghan mujahedeen in the 1980s, they are not thought to be still usable because of the deterioration of their sophisticated electronics and battery systems.
As a contingency in 2002, the U.S. government offered an amnesty on Stingers and successfully bought back many of the missiles still in the arsenals of Afghan warlords for $40,000 a missile.
To date, the Taliban has shot down several Western helicopters, but only through the use of unguided rocket-propelled grenades, which have a range of 500 yards.
In April, members of the Special Boat Service operating in Nimroz province intercepted several truckloads of weapons coming across the Iranian border, including a working SAM-7 missile.
It was one of a number of recent weapons caches that Western officials say have been seized on the border with Iran, fueling claims by Britain and the United States that Iran, or elements within the Iranian government, have begun supplying arms to the Taliban.
Hundreds of SAM-7 missiles disappeared into the black market in Iraq in the aftermath of the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein, where they have since been used to shoot down dozens of helicopters and airplanes, reportedly including a British C-130 in 2005.