Islamic State’s Condom Bombs Aren’t as Crazy as They Seem
By JOSEPH TREVITHICK
To fend off air strikes, Islamic State militants in Syria appear to have launched dozens of small bombs attached to balloons — possibly condoms full of lighter-than-air gas — on at least one occasion. While the homemade weapons are of dubious quality, the idea of an anti-aircraft “mine” isn’t as crazy as it might seem.
On Oct. 21, Russia Insider posted a video online claiming to show the militants assembling and releasing the bombs in the skies over Idlib province. Appearing to be nothing more than a black plastic pouch suspended from clear plastic sacks, the mines could have a rudimentary fuze that goes off when the charge bumps into something, or a simple timing device that sets off the explosive after a predetermined time.
“Floating a small explosive device on a small balloon seems an extremely unlikely method of defense,” Russia Insider stated. “Clearly it has been decided by the Saudis and Turks that their terrorist groups will not be allowed to attack Putin’s raiders with MANPADs for the time being.”
Short for man-portable air-defense systems, MANPADS are relatively simple shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, like the American Stinger and Russian SA-7 Grail. Crowd-funded and volunteer-supported, Russia Insider claims it presents an alternative to “biased and inaccurate” coverage of Moscow’s policies and Russian life compared in Western media outlets.
We could not independently verify the video — seen above — or whether the fighters were from Islamic State rather than other groups that Russia is also bombing. Still, from East to West, the internet quickly raced to point out the absurd and comical nature of the balloon-borne explosives.
“Left with little recourse in the face of relentless Russian air strikes, the self-proclaimed Islamic State terrorist group has apparently resorted to a fairly unique defensive strategy,” the Kremlin-owned news agency Sputnik commented. “The entire arts-and-crafts project is shown, scored to look like some kind of bizarre extremist music video.”
But regardless of whether Islamic State’s floating condom-bomb works, the concept is entirely sound. For more than 50 years, the United States, Russia and others have experimented with similar weapons.
Perhaps the most well known analogue is the barrage balloon. A simple device, the balloons are anchored to the ground with a heavy metal cable.
Strong enough to withstand the impact of an airplane, the line presents a dangerous hazard for enemy aircraft. A network of the unmanned blimps could protect cities or important military facilities.
The balloons “forced aircraft to higher altitudes, thereby decreasing surprise and bombing accuracy … and the barrier presented a definite mental and material hazard to pilots.” U.S. Air Force Maj. Franklin Hillson wrote in a 1988 Air Command and Staff College report. “The real objective of the balloons was to deny the low-altitude arena to the enemy.”
France, Italy, Germany and the United Kingdom all employed barrage balloons during World War I. In World War II, the British and the Americans continued to use the weapons.
During the Battle of Britain, the British also employed the Short and Long Aerial Mine. “The devices suspended heavy steel cables from parachutes, intending to disrupt German flying formations,” Hillson wrote in his report.
With the advent of higher-flying and faster-moving jet fighters and bombers, these aerial obstacles fell out of vogue. Insurgents in Syria would probably have even more trouble hitting fast-moving jets like the American F-16 or Russian Su-24 and Su-34.
Still, in the right concentrations and if they worked as intended, the weapons could be a threat to low-flying aircraft, especially helicopters. Since Russian forces appeared at Al Assad International Airport in Latakia, various rebel and terrorist groups have showed off videos and pictures of battles with Mi-24 Hind gunships.
The choppers are often flying at very low altitudes — sometimes just dozens of feet above the ground — during their attacks and patrols. Known as nap-of-the-earth flight, pilots use geographic features to hide their movements, avoid hostile fire and surprise their enemies.
A cluster of airborne mines could easily be dangerous or at least disorienting to helicopters zooming along so close to the ground. With this very theory in mind, Viet Cong guerrillas used improvised and captured Claymore mines — which blast out hundreds of steel balls in an arc pattern — to booby-trap likely landing zones during the Vietnam War.
Based on this experience, both the Pentagon and their Soviet counterparts began developing anti-helicopter “mines.” In general, these weapons use either a directional blast or a rocket-propelled explosive charge to hit low-flying choppers.
By the end of the Cold War, the U.S. Army and Marine Corps were actively working on these anti-aircraft bombs to specifically to defend against Soviet attack helicopters like the Hind and armed transports like the Mi-8 and Mi-17 Hips. The ground combat branch wanted a mine that could hit choppers flying faster than 200 miles per hour and at altitudes of nearly 500 feet, according to one report.
Designed around the Wide Area Munition, troops would be able to scatter the proposed mines from rockets and aerial dispensers. If Soviet forces flooded in to Germany, American soldiers and their NATO allies could quickly cover the battlefield in the small anti-aircraft defenses.
Austrian company Hirtenberger built another bomb called the Helkir for the European market. With infrared and acoustic sensors, the Claymore-like weapon could toss a cloud of shrapnel and shred thin helicopter fuselages from almost 500 feet away.
In the face of NATO gunships like the AH-1 Cobra and AH-64 Apache, the Soviets and their Warsaw Pact allies did the same. Bulgria’s AHM family is similar in concept to the Helkir.
In the 1980s, the British company Wallop Industries even resurrected the idea of the parachute-suspended booby trap from World War II. The Skysnare used a kite-shaped balloon to hold a dangling Kevlar line nearly 1,000 feet in the air, Hillson noted.
After the Cold War ended, the Pentagon worried the anti-helicopter mines would end up all over the world. By the late 1990s, the Army and Marines had turned their attention to countermeasures to protect American choppers. “These mines can not be countered by existing aircraft protection systems,” the Marine Corps explained in its technology program plan for the 1997 fiscal year.
“The Soviets introduced was a proximity fused ‘anti-helicopter mine’ which used a rocket charge to propel an explosive warhead upwardly,” defense analyst Carlo Kopp wrote in the June 2009 edition of Defence Today. “Some sources claim that Iraqi insurgents improvised a similar weapon, which would launch a warhead to a height of 50 [feet]to act as a backyard-built anti-helicopter mine.”
These weapons are still out there and companies haven’t stopped working on new versions. In 2014, the Russian air force announced that it had inducted new aerial mines into service, according to a report by Voice of Russia.
And while Islamic State’s home-brewed aerial barrage may turn out to be as worthless as many have speculated, the tactic could definitely be deadly under the right circumstances. Rather than a clear sign of desperation, the terrorists are actually trying to recreate existing weapons with limited resources.