Back when the Afghan mujahideen were fighting the infidel Russians, the weapon of choice to take down Russian aircraft was the shoulder-fired missile, or SFM. So prevalent were these missiles, the fighters created a special kind of donkey saddle to get the missiles higher up into the mountains and closer to the targeted airplanes. The preferred model was the 50-pound SA-7 — ironically built by the Soviets.
The recent WikiLeaks leak has revealed information regarding the status of SFMs in Afghanistan today. The biggest revelation is not that incidents involving SFMs have happened, but that they haven’t happened more often.
One incident, in May of 2007, involved an American Chinook helicopter struck by an SFM while crossing the Helmand River. All seven on board were killed: five Americans, a Briton, and a Canadian. The concern with these weapon is how easily transportable they are, which makes them considerably more dangerous than traditional surface-to-air missile systems run by nation states. You can’t target and destroy a missile that’s hidden in someone’s garage or cave — hence their appeal to terrorists. When a couple hundred-dollar weapon is able to take out an aircraft full of soldiers, cargo, and weaponry, the scales tip in favor of the terrorists.
Which is what nearly happened in Nimroz in 2007, as originally reported by the Telegraph’s Tom Coghlan in Kabul (and recently confirmed by WikiLeaks). An American C-130 Hercules flying in southwestern Afghanistan was nearly struck by an SA-7 as it refueled at 11,000 feet. In that instance, flares were fired from the plane to throw the missile off course — which worked.
During the Iraq War, these kinds of near misses were a lot more common because Saddam Hussein had stockpiled thousands of SFMs during his reign. When coalition forces neglected to secure weapons depots immediately after the invasion, many SFMs fell into the wrong hands. Colleagues who traveled in and out of Iraq relayed to me stories of corkscrew landings — hair-raising, spiraled descents meant to confuse the heat-seeking missiles. In November 2004, the Washington Post reported that as many as 4,000 of these missiles may have gone missing:
U.S. officials fear that the shoulder-launched missiles were among the items carried off by groups willing to sell them on the black market to terrorist organizations.
The numbers were likely inflated, or more U.S. and NATO aircraft would be falling out of the air in Afghanistan.
The threat, however, is still there. This past February, the Federation of American Scientists’ Arms Sale Monitoring Project produced a report detailing from which countries the most SFMs are entering the market. Not surprisingly, North Korea won the prize:
A North Korean arms shipment seized by Thai officials in December contained “five crates of MANPADS SAM[s]”, according to an official Thai government report. [MANPAD = man-portable air defense system.]
Runner-up, says FAS, is the United Wa State Army, a Burmese insurgent group in Myanmar, in possession of hundreds of “more sophisticated HN-5Ns from China.”
All this has the Department of Homeland Security — pardon the expression — up in arms. The quiet fear among U.S. aviation bureaucrats is what might happen if a commercial passenger jet were to be shot down by an SFM over the continental United States. Many Americans would stop flying, certainly for a while.
In the near-miss with the C-130 in Afghanistan, one crew member reported seeing a “bright flash” and a corkscrew-shaped smoke trail nearby, before the C-130’s own flares fired and sent the missile off course. That kind of anti-missile fireworks display would not make U.S. commercial passengers feel comfortable. The DHS/TSA bureaucracy knows this, and yet they continue to spend tens of millions not only producing threat reports, but testing how to outfit the entire U.S. commercial fleet with anti-shoulder-fired missile systems sometime in the future.
Meanwhile, sting operations continue to happen, with federal enforcement interrupting plots planned to go down on U.S. soil. In August 2004, the FBI arrested two leaders of an Albany, New York, mosque in a plot to sell SFMs. Yassin Aref, the imam, and Mohammed Hoosain, one of the mosque’s founders, were charged with “providing material support to terrorism by participating in a conspiracy to help an individual they believed was a terrorist purchase a shoulder-fired missile.” In March 2005, FBI agents in New York indicted 18 men in yet another plot to smuggle SFMs into the country. The Christian Science Monitor has reported on SFM sting operations in Texas, California, and New Jersey. Al-Qaeda websites publish tutorials on how to smuggle SFMs into the United States, how to overcome perimeter security at airports, and how to fire SFMs at commercial airplanes. As recently as November 2009, the Department of Justice filed a criminal complaint against a Philadelphia-based Lebanese man, Dani Nemr Tarraf, and charged him with conspiring to acquire anti-aircraft missiles powerful enough to take out a fighter jet.
Two years after 9/11, Colin Powell stated that “no threat is more serious to aviation” than shoulder-fired missiles. Not much has changed.