Blast from the past

Stinger missiles supplied by the United States are what helped turn the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, giving the Mujahideen their victory against the world's second most powerful nuclear superpower.

By Claude Salhani (View from Washington)

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Published: Sat 12 Jul 2008, 10:51 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 4:21 PM

Shoulder-launched by a single individual, Stinger missiles are easy to transport, easy to hide, and their built-in portable infrared homing device makes it one of the most reliable surface-to-air missile. In other words, just as the Stingers proved to be useful in fighting the Soviets, so too can they — and the hundreds of thousands of Russian made SAMs — be used by terrorists to attack military and civilian aircraft.

Manufactured in the United States by Raytheon Missile Systems as well as in Germany under licence by EADS, the Stinger has been credited with 270 confirm kills of aircraft, according to Jane's.

The missile, designated a "MANPADS" for Man-Portable-Air-Defense System, is currently in use by the United States military and 29 other countries. The problem is that an unknown number — probably several tens of thousands — are still in the hands of the Afghan Mujahideen. Until a few years ago there were about half a million of these shoulder-fired missiles in the world, 90 per cent of which are in secure military hands, according to Lincoln P. Bloomfield, Jr., a former Department of State's special envoy for MANPADS threat reduction.

"It's a wild estimates," says Bloomfield, adding that the other 10 percent are in countries whose stewardship in military supplies is wanting.

What worries Washington and other nations are the thousands of shoulder-fired rockets currently floating around various black markets. "There is activity that some people in the US government watch very closely for signs that terrorists may try to purchase MANPADS," said Bloomfield.

What nobody really knows for sure is how many missiles, if any, are currently stashed away by terrorist groups waiting to use them against commercial airliners, as was the case in 2002 when a shoulder-held missile was fired against an Israeli charter jet taking off with a load of Israeli tourists from Mombassa Airport on the Kenyan Coast.

The missiles fired but missed the aircraft, a fact Bloomfield attributes to the age of the missiles. Some observers speculated however that the Israeli airliner might have been equipped with anti-missile defence mechanisms.

For a small country such as Israel, with a limited number of civilian aircraft, installing anti-missile technology is feasible. For the US and western European countries with vast fleets of commercial airliners the project becomes far too expensive and could end up bankrupting a number of airline companies.

And although the Israeli plane was not brought down, the impact on Kenya's economy was devastating: the east African nation lost 3 percent to 5 per cent of its GDP, while its tourism industry suffered a 25 per cent reduction.

One year later a transport flight taking off from Baghdad Airport was hit by a MANPAD, but the British crew managed to bring the plane back safely despite having one of its wings on fire and one engine blown-up. The British crew flying the airplane had received prior training on how to avoid and reacts to attacks by MANPADS.

Since the 1970s, more than 47 civilian aircraft have been hit by MANPADS causing the crash of some 28 airplanes and the deaths of 800 people around the world.

The US government takes the threat of shoulder-fired missiles against civilian targets by terrorist groups seriously. To that end the bush administration had appointed Bloomfield as the Department of State's special envoy.

Bloomfield, a former assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, heads an interagency task force responsible for addressing the threat posed by those shoulder launched MANPADS.

Although technically a lot of these weapons are obsolete given that newer generations have seen the day, and perhaps more importantly spare parts for the original Stinger when it was first introduced in the Afghan theatre of operations in the 1970s are no longer produced.

Nevertheless, this has not prevented the Afghan fighters — once allied to the Americans in fighting the Soviet invasion of their country — from turning these US-provided weapons against the very people who supplied them. And despite their age and obvious wear and tear, Afghan fighters have proven quite ingenious and fabricating the spare parts needed to keep these weapons functioning. And sometimes they do and sometimes they blow Up in the users' hands.

To succeed in their endeavour terrorists need to get lucky just once, whereas law enforcement agencies have to remain on constant alert. It's a never-ending deadly game of cat and mouse with very high stakes.

Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times and a political analyst in Washington

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