In 2003, the then United States (US) Secretary of State, Colin Powell, called man portable air defence systems (MANPADS) ‘the most serious threat to aviation’. Even though the 2002 Mombasa Incident may have been the immediate reason for the statement, the threat posed by MANPADS not only to civil aviation but combat aircraft as well, was always very real and the Mombasa Incident only brought it into focus at the time. Unfortunately, as we shall see, MANPADS continue to be a clear and present danger that simply cannot be ignored. Obviously, given their continued potency in downing combat jets, civil aviation has every reason to be worried about MANPADS.
A Brief History
FIM-43 Redeye, the first MANPADS was developed by the US as an effective weapon to protect ‘foot soldier[s] against attack by low flying, strafing planes and close support aircraft’ when the standard anti-aircraft (AA) weapon of the infantry – the .50 caliber AA machine gun (MG) was found to be ineffective against Post World War II jet aircraft. The Soviet Union followed suit with the 9K32 Strela-2 (SA-7) missile system, which entered service in 1970. While Redeye has been wholly replaced by the more capable FIM-92 Stinger in US service, SA-7b (i.e Strela-2M) continues to be used across the globe. There are at least seven versions of SA-7 in service today, with some versions being unauthorized developments by recipients of original SA-7s from the Soviets. Over the years, more than one million MANPADS have been produced by more than 20 countries and exported to dozens more.
SA-7b made its combat debut in 1969 when Egyptian soldiers used it to shoot down an Israeli Air Force A-4 Skyhawk on 19 August 1969. In the course of the next year, Egypt claimed to have achieved 36 hits against Israeli aircraft by using some 99 SA-7b missiles. SA-7 units also saw extensive use in North Vietnam where it is credited with 204 hits out of 589 firings against US aircraft between 1972 and 1975 according to Russian sources. The record against jet aircraft was however poor as only two aircraft were reportedly shot down by SA-7/7b missiles in the entire conflict. Evasive maneuvering, armour protection and the use of flares provided adequate protection against these first generation MANPADS.
Stingers, however, by all accounts have proved to be more effective. The 1982 Falklands War may have been the first-time Stinger was used in combat, but its real claim to fame of course lies in its extensive by Afghan Mujahedin against the Soviets in the 1980s. As per one estimate, the Mujahedin achieved an incredible 79 percent kill ratio – scoring a total of 269 aircraft kills in 340 engagements. In a more recent conflict in Chechnya, an informal study by BAE Systems further underscores the threat posed by MANPADS and other infra-red (IR) guided weapons. Apparently, 25 out of a total of 38 aircraft losses were attributable to MANPADS and/or other IR-directed weapons in this conflict, to deliver a kill to engagement ratio of 66 percent...
Now even as various SA-7 versions became outdated, newer Soviet/Russian origin missiles have proved to be just as lethal as Stinger. During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, 12 of the 29 American aircraft lost during combat operations (including one US Army AH-64 Apache attack helicopter) are believed to have been shot down by Iraqi SA-16 Iglas. The threat was clearly no longer limited to relatively ‘unprotected’ aircraft and helicopters but the entire spectrum of combat aviation including UAVs- was found to be vulnerable to Russian supplied MANPADS. Out of sheer worry about the threat posed by Serbian MANPADS units, the US Army’s Apache fleet in Albania remained grounded, during the Balkan conflict of the 1990s. Quoting TIME Magazine, one source said that ‘the brass are worried that the Serbs have moved hundreds of SA-7s shoulder-fired missiles toward Albania, lurking in the valleys the Apaches would follow into Kosovo, just waiting for the gunships to cross the frontier’.
No, It Isn’t A World Away
Closer home, MANPADS became a major cause of concern for the Indian Air Force (IAF) as well during the 1999 Kargil War. Before its formal employment in combat support of the Indian Army, IAF had launched a Canberra PR57 from 106 Squadron on May 21 to conduct a reconnaissance of the besieged area overlooking highway NH1A and the adjacent town of Kargil. While descending to 22,000 feet near the Line of Control (LOC), the Canberra sustained a direct hit in its right engine by what was later determined to have been a Chinese-made Anza MANPADS. As we know, IAF was to subsequently two aircraft on the second day of air operations. While the MiG-27 was lost because of an engine flameout due to ingestion of smoke and debris, the MiG-21 was lost to a MANPADS while searching for the downed MiG-27. IAF also lost a Mi-17 helicopter the next day, this time to a Stinger. After these losses, IAF had to desist from using the vulnerable Mi-17 helicopter in an armed fire-support role. Though no more aircraft were lost subsequently, the fact remains that MANPADS had made their mark on a major combat operations by a major air force.
To understand the seriousness of the MANPADS threat, a look at the overall losses caused by it over the years would suffice. An oft repeated reference is based on an open literature assessment conducted by BAE Systems which shows that ‘since 1973, 49 percent of aircraft losses in combat worldwide have been attributed to IR-seeking surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and another 8 percent to unknown air defenses’. Not only this, another study suggests that 90 percent of all aircraft lost in combat in the last 15 years have fallen to MANPADS missiles.
Given these numbers, it is clear that shoulder-fired IR-guided missiles currently represent a most potent threat to modern aircraft. If the enemy has MANPADS then it may not be safe for an air force to fly low, thereby effectively ruling out the use of a range of aerial weapons. Neither air forces nor civil aviation authorities can afford to take this threat lightly.
Colonel Mandeep Singh(Retd) joined the Indian Army in December 1982 and was commissioned into Air Defence Artillery. He commanded an Air Defence Group during Operation Parakaram and also commanded his Regiment along the Line of Actual Control with China. Besides Regimental service, he has experience in several Staff appointments. He has written extensively on various in-service subjects and contributed to technical journals.
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