Militants Could Use Artillery and Rockets Against Airliners
There is historical precedent
In the aftermath of the tragic shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in Ukraine, the majority of civilian air traffic going from Europe to South and Southeaster Asia has redirected to fly above the troubled Middle East—some of them over Iraq and Syria.
Some observers have expressed alarm. Others argue that terrorist organizations and Islamist rebels in Syria and Iraq don’t have the proper weaponry for targeting high-flying civilian airliners.
That might not be true. It’s possible militants could target airliners.
Civil traffic normally flies above 25,000 feet or 8,000 meters. Shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles—which we know rebels and terrorists possess—can reach up to 4,500 meters. And 23-millimeter anti aircraft artillery hardly makes it to 1,000 meters.
But it’s possible that insurgents have captured operational SA-6 anti-aircraft missile systems from the Syrian army—although we have no firm evidence.
The SA-8 is the most sophisticated air-defense system we know for sure Syrian rebels possess. But it, too, can’t reach passenger jets at their normal cruise altitude.
But rebels and militants do have other weapons that can hit civilian aircraft—namely, artillery and rockets. It’s possible to use 122-millimeter Grad rockets and 155-millimeter artillery shells against high-flying planes. As unlikely as it sounds, there is historical precedent for such improvised anti-aircraft weapons.
Unchallenged by the Iranians, the Iraqi copters started carrying S-5 rocket pods for strikes against Iranian trenches. Desperate to stop Iraq’s Mi-8s, one Iranian artillery observer—we agreed to call him Capt. L—came up with a radical idea.
He proposed to use 155-millimeter artillery shells with time-delay fuses to at least harass Iraqi helicopters. The observer reported the routine path of Iraqi helicopters and the artillerymen set the fuses to explode at the same altitude.
The results were surprising.
“I spelled the code on my radio and a few seconds later the mountainous view in front of me started to fill with orange flashes and black dots,” Capt. L says. “In my binoculars I was chasing the lead helicopter. A shell exploded right above its rotor. It was like the explosion pushed down the shaft and set the fuselage ablaze, but the rotor continued to fly and hit a ridge to the right of our position.”
Today the Iranians claim to have shot down eight Iraqi helicopters in just two days. While this numbers might be an exaggeration, the artillery experiment at least proved that improvised anti-aircraft measures can work.
The experience was so sweet for the Iranians that they pursued the idea even after the war, but with another type of artillery. In 2011 the Iranian armed forces introduced the Arash anti-aircraft artillery system, based on the Grad rocket.
An Arash can be seen at the top of this story, in a photo we pulled from an Iranian Internet forum.
The system consists of a revolver launcher and an electro-optical sensor to correct aiming based on explosion signatures. The first successful test was against a stationary target at an altitude of 1,000 meters.
Another interesting prototype first appeared in a parade in 2009. It basically was a ZSU-23–2 anti-aircraft artillery piece with Hydra-70 rockets instead of guns.
A basic Grad rocket in theory can reach an altitude of 7,800 meters. A larger 240-millimeter rocket can reach 18,000 meters.
Aiming poses a unique challenge. Rebels would need precise measurement equipment to aim their rockets and precisely set time-delay fuses. Today anyone with Internet access can track the approximate locations civilian airliners.
Binoculars with long-range laser range finders and commercial GPS navigation systems can be an enormous help in aiming. The rockets’ wide lethal radius mitigates the targeting problem. The lethal blast radius of a 240-millimeter rocket is 300 meters.
Letting civilian airliners to fly over Ukraine war zone was a mistake with a drastic penalty. How long before rebels and militants in Iraq and Syria realize they too might be able to shoot down civilian planes?