Respond to this Article April 2003

Plane Threat

Terrorists have never shot down an American passenger jet with surface-to-air missiles. But it's only a matter of time.

By Soyoung Ho

Late last November, two slender metal tubes arced into the Kenyan air, streaking toward a charter aircraft that had just taken off, laden with Israeli tourists, from the Mombasa airport. Fired by suspected al Qaeda operatives, the Soviet-made missiles missed their target--leaving passengers relieved, and Americans suddenly aware of yet another terrorist threat. It may be new to them, but it's not to security analysts. Since the 1980s, shoulder-launched missiles have been fired at commercial airliners roughly twice a year, and even more frequently since September 11. And while terrorists haven't yet managed to blow up a nuclear power plant or detonate a dirty bomb, over the last 30 years, according to Jane's, the respected defense publication, such missiles have brought down enough charter, medical, or cargo planes flying over conflict zones to kill 900 people. More than two dozen guerrilla and terrorist groups are known to possess them. "If it has happened before, certainly we have to think that it will be tried again," says Brian Jenkins, a terrorism expert at the RAND Corporation.

How big is the threat? For all the fear they inspired, last year's anthrax attacks killed just four people, while 1995's sarin gas attack in Tokyo, perpetrated by a Japanese cult, cost only 11 lives--terrible, to be sure, but illustrative of the relative difficulty of employing chemical and biological agents as weapons of mass destruction. By contrast, a single shoulder-fired missile could take down a Boeing 747, killing up to 500 people. And last May, the FBI warned American law-enforcement agencies that terrorist cells may already have smuggled such weapons into the United States. Yet the attention paid to this threat is minuscule compared with that of chemical, nuclear, and biological weapons. Legislation, proposed by the Senate, requiring all U.S. airlines to retrofit their passenger jets with antimissile countermeasures has met a tepid response. Meanwhile, top administration officials almost never talk about this threat. And for all the pressure it has put on other countries to check the proliferation of chemical and biological weapons, the administration has done little to keep these deadly yet economical weapons out of the hands of terrorists. Even worse, it has done a few things that might make the eventuality more likely.

Menace in a Golf Bag

Known technically as Man-Portable Air Defense Systems, or MANPADS, such missiles are in some ways an ideal weapon for the al Qaedas of the world. They are far more powerful than most small arms, and can strike from a distance, enabling would-be terrorists to inflict great damage at minimal risk. Small and light at about 35 pounds, they're easily smuggled. (With 20,000 uninspected cargo containers coming into U.S. ports every day, and fairly porous land borders, says Jenkins, "How difficult can it be for something that fits in a golf bag?") Nor are such weapons hard to find. The world's arsenals boast an estimated 500,000, from American Stingers to Russian Strelas; 5,000 to 10,000 of these are unaccounted for, including between 300 and 600 American-made Stingers delivered by the CIA to Afghan mujaheddin in the 1980s. (When the Soviet-Afghan war ended in 1989, the CIA tried to buy some of them back, but only with limited success.)

Some 56 countries are known to have the SA-7, a widely-copied, 1960s vintage Soviet model. Another 20 own variations on the American Stinger. Pakistan, North Korea, China, and Egypt all manufacture variants on U.S. or Russian missiles. For terrorists seeking reasonably high body counts and wider ripples of fear and chaos, taking down a commercial airliner would do nicely, disrupting air travel and tourism as 9/11 did. "Al Qaeda, in particular, likes to destroy symbols of American economic power and global domination," notes Alan Kuperman, a professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University. "Destroying American aircraft, especially overseas, would fit the bill quite well."

So if they have the means and motivation, why haven't terrorists brought down an American 747? For a missile attack to be successful, an individual or group needs three things: missiles, motivation, and opportunity. And it's not easy to get all three at the same time.

One simple reason shoulder-launched missiles haven't often been used against commercial airliners is that, until recently, it was simply easier to hijack a plane. But as airlines installed metal detectors and better airport security during the 1970s, hijackings became harder to pull off: There were 72 in 1969, but only seven in 1998. In-flight bombs, like the one that brought down Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, began to replace hijackings (9/11 notwithstanding).

If terrorists were willing to use bombs, why not missiles? Here, too, the answer is that getting a bomb on a plane has been technically easier than downing it with a portable missile. Such missiles are more complex and delicate than simple timed bombs. Indeed, many of the shoulder-fired missiles most widely available on the black market are older models nearing the end of their shelf life. Over time, crucial components such as battery cooling units wear down. And although these can be replaced, refitting surface-to-air missiles isn't quite as simple as popping in a few Duracells. The end result is that terrorists wind up with more than a few duds. During the 1980s, Libya supplied a dozen SA-7Bs to the Irish Republican Army, but most turned out to be unusable. When U.S. troops raided al Qaeda strongholds in Afghanistan, they found shoulder-fired missiles piled up in caves, their fuses and other parts corroded or damaged. So it's not surprising that, out of the 1,250 aviation terrorist incidents catalogued by RAND since 1968, only 42 have involved shoulder-fired missiles. Since 9/11, a total of five missiles have been fired at civilian airliners--two in Kenya, one in Saudi Arabia, and two in the Czech Republic. All five either missed or misfired.

Even when the missiles aren't defective, they're not easy to operate. It's not as if Joe Terrorist can wander down to the local range and fire off a couple of practice shots. Before the mujaheddin received training by CIA operatives, they had significant trouble hitting Soviet aircraft with their U.S.-supplied Stingers. Most shoulder-fired missiles sitting in arsenals today have a range of 11,000 to 15,000 feet. Since that's far lower than the 33,000 feet airliners normally cruise at, terrorists must fire off the weapon while planes are taking off or landing. Likewise, the missiles still most widely available, SA-7s, have to be launched from behind an aircraft so that their targeting mechanisms can lock onto the heat emitted from a plane's engines. SA-7s also can't maneuver once in the air, making it relatively easy for pilots to take evasive action and avoid being hit.

During the Yom Kippur war of 1973, according to a U.S. Air Force report, Arab armies fired more than 5,000 SA-7 rounds against Israeli Air Force ground-attack aircraft, but shot down only 30 planes. Even today, as a general rule, the best soldiers trained in the missile's use only hit about 70 percent of their targets in combat. And civilian jumbo jets, while bigger and slower-moving than fighters, can actually be harder to bring down with shoulder-fired missiles, since they can usually still fly after losing one or two engines. Of those aforementioned 42 attempts against non-military aircraft, about a dozen were successful. But only twice have larger commercial passenger jets been brought down--once in 1993, when Abkhazian rebels in Georgia shot down a Russian airliner, killing 106 passengers; and once in 1983, when UNITA rebels in Angola claimed to have bought down another such aircraft, killing 130.

No one has ever taken down an American airliner with a shoulder-fired missile, in part because American airlines do a good job staying out of trouble. Most anti-American terrorists operate out of countries that don't get a lot of U.S. airliner flights. Of the groups known to both have the missiles and target Americans, few target civilians en masse. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front, though affiliated with al Qaeda, limits its scope of operation to the southern Philippines, where few Americans venture by plane. Hezbollah famously attacked the American embassy and U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, and was involved in the 1996 attacks on a Air Force barracks in Saudi Arabia, but generally shies away from going after American civilians.

For that matter, American intelligence and law enforcement agencies have actually been pretty good at nipping missile attacks in the bud. Over the years, the FBI has prevented the real IRA from obtaining Stingers in the United States and blocked Muammar Qaddafi's attempt to provide rocket launchers to an Islamist street gang in Chicago. More recently, last November, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that two attempts to exchange drugs for cash and Stingers were foiled; in one case, the missiles were destined for al Qaeda camps.

Jam the Attackers

That's the good news. The bad news is that, to some extent, each of these barriers to entry is slowly crumbling. Since 9/11, for instance, the United States has made major strides tightening up airport security, from scanning luggage to searching passengers to a new program that would allow pilots to carry sidearms. But the harder we make it to hijack or place bombs on airliners, the more incentive terrorists have to try something else--like shoulder-fired missiles.

Advances in missile technology, meanwhile, mean that should terrorists attempt to shoot down an airliner, they'll be more likely to succeed. The latest models, manufactured primarily by the United States, Russia, Japan, and France, have ranges of over 22,000 feet. That means terrorists can fire from farther away; it also means that airliners are vulnerable during a longer portion of their takeoffs and landings. The new missiles are also more agile, so that, once launched, they're better able to home in on the target and counter the pilot's attempts to evade. Finally, they're able to close in on aircraft from any direction, not just from behind--giving would-be terrorists greater flexibility in choosing a secure place from which to fire.

That doesn't mean shoulder-launched missiles can't be countered. Under legislation proposed by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), airlines would oufit their planes with electronic devices that would jam the attackers' guidance systems. And other countermeasures can be deployed, from tighter security around airfields (thus forcing the rocketeers to fire at a higher and shorter sector of the aircraft's path) to scheduling more flights at night (when planes are harder to target). Airports could also reduce the number of flight paths and deploy aerial buoys--basically big balloons broadcasting IR and UV static--along those that remain, providing a curtain of sorts that would interfere with missiles' targeting systems.

But in the long run, it's a lot more efficient to keep the missiles out of terrorists' hands than to defend thousands of airplanes and hundreds of airports. Unfortunately, new-model missiles have already been copied or acquired by Pakistan, North Korea, China, and Egypt, countries that have been willing to export military technology--and very irresponsibly--in the past. And when it comes to rogue regimes, like North Korea or Iran, "There's not much that you can do about proliferation," says Lt. Cmdr. Jim Brooks, a public affairs officer at the Defense Intelligence Agency. The sale of missiles is perfectly legal between states, and Pyongyang won't exactly issue press statements should it decide to sell the equipment to Iran, which, in turn, could hand it to Hezbollah or Hamas. Aside from lodging protests, the next step is military action, such as the United States' interception last year of a North Korean ship carrying Scud missiles to Yemen. But as missiles proliferate, they'll be harder to interdict.

The Bush administration has at least acknowledged the problem. After the attacks in Kenya, they belatedly convened an interagency task force to study the problem, and according to one State Department official, sought to persuade foreign governments to destroy some of the missiles in their arsenal, and to take more stringent measures against the theft of the rest. But other White House policies have undercut these efforts. Preventing missiles from proliferating requires foreign countries to more carefully guard their own arsenals and track down terrorists who may have already acquired such weapons. Right now, as a result of the administration's penchant for overbearing "diplomacy," most countries are not in the mood to help. And the White House's evident disdain for arms-control treaties makes it unlikely that Bush would ever seek an international agreement to more tightly regulate shoulder-fired missiles. (Currently, the United States is party to the so-called Wassenaar Arrangement, which in theory binds countries to keep close track of arms sales in general and shoulder-fired missiles in particular. Unfortunately, states not party to the agreement include China, North Korea, India, Pakistan, and all of the Central Asian republics.)

Finally, we must factor in the unforeseeable effects of any war against Iraq. The administration clearly believes that taking out Saddam will send an unequivocal message to state sponsors of terrorism. Since sympathetic regimes are the best source for hardware and training for terrorists, the invasion could in theory lessen the threat from these weapons. On the other hand, the invasion is likely to inflame existing terrorist networks, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, that haven't before made a habit of targeting American civilians. Both groups are known to possess SA-7s (and possibly more advanced models), and have operational capacity within the United States. So far, when it comes to the threat of shoulder-launched missiles, the United States has been fortunate. In the future, we may not be so lucky.

Soyoung Ho is a Washington Monthly researcher-reporter.


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