U.S. Commandos Got Spooked by Shoulder-Fired Missiles
Threat led to urgent request for defensive gear
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
It’s no secret that rebels and terrorists in Iraq, Syria and other conflict zones around the world have captured — or otherwise obtained — shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles.
These easy-to-use weapons give militants a chance to strike back against more powerful military forces equipped with fighter-bombers and helicopter gunships.
Now War Is Boring has obtained, via the Freedom of Information Act, heavily-redacted documents that appear to show just how spooked U.S. commandos were by extremists’ anti-air missiles. So spooked that the special operators made an urgent request for extra defensive gear.
On March 30, 2015, U.S. Air Force lieutenant general Thomas Trask, vice commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, sent a so-called “joint urgent operational need” memo to his superiors at the Pentagon. The request called for gear to spot and defeat man-portable surface-to-air missiles.
Censors removed any description of the threat and any mention of where elite troops might be in danger. But Trask’s message made it clear that, at least in that context, the missiles posed a possibly unavoidable risk.
Aviators could “employ special tactics, techniques and procures … to avoid engagement,” the only unredacted paragraph explained. However, “these [tactics] may not always be viable and could possibly impact support to joint force commanders.”
Compilation of Syrian rebel MANPADS launches between 2012-2015 (Part 1/3) https://t.co/GgLYAX6WJa
Less than a month later, the Pentagon’s top commando headquarters signed off on the request. We don’t know what gear elite fliers got or what aircraft received the modifications.
In August 2016, SOCOM asked companies to submit plans to remove existing defensive equipment and install new systems on 11 unspecified aircraft. According to the official description, this plan was related to the initial urgent request more than a year earlier.
In an email to War Is Boring, Matt Schroeder, a senior researcher at Small Arms Survey who actively tracks the spread of man-portable anti-aircraft missiles, couldn’t think of any particular incident in the spring 2015 that might have prompted the Pentagon’s concerns. But militants across the Middle East and North Africa regularly post photos and videos on social media showing off the weapons.
“The … threat environment has changed significantly in recent years,” Schroeder said. “There has been a sharp uptick in sightings of illicit missiles in many countries, including recent generation systems not previously seen outside of government control.”
According to Small Arms Survey, in Iraq and Syria the terrorist groups Islamic State and Ansar Al Islam have access to as many as three different types of shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles. Militants have either seized the weapons from government stockpiles or purchased them on the black market.
The most commonly-seen type is the Soviet-era SA-7, referred to by the NATO nickname “Grail” or its Russian name “Strela.” Exported to dozens of countries after entering production in 1970, the missile homes in on an airplane or chopper’s hot engine exhaust.
Upgraded versions of the weapon have a maximum range of more than two and half miles and can hit targets flying at altitudes of up to 7,500 feet. Aircraft can try to dodge the missiles by shooting off flares.
In addition, Islamist fighters have smaller numbers of the much improved Chinese FN-6 and Russian Igla missiles. Compared to the older SA-7, the FN-6 can hit targets farther way and is more likely to get past bright decoys.
Although early versions date back to the 1980s, variants of the Igla are superior to the first-generation Soviet Strelas. Along with added range and improved tracking gear, the missiles fly faster, making it harder for pilots to react and escape.
While rebels and terrorists in Iraq and Syria have shot dozens of missiles at opposing aircraft, it’s not entirely clear just how effective these weapons have been. Officials in Damascus, Baghdad and Washington routinely dismiss claims from groups like Islamic State regarding the potency of the militants’ defenses.
Compilation of Syrian rebel MANPADS launches between 2012-2015 (Part 2/3) https://t.co/QtFC2izyXW
On Dec. 24, 2014, Islamic State claimed it had shot down a Jordanian F-16 fighter jet with a shoulder-launched missile. The Pentagon’s top headquarters for operations in the Middle East blamed the crash on a mechanical problem.
In April 2016, a Russian Mi-28 helicopter gunship went down in the Syrian city of Homs. Russia’s defense ministry denied enemy fighters had shot down the chopper. A man-portable missile might have been responsible for the crash of an Mi-35 Hind three months later.
Since the situation on the ground is so dangerous, it’s difficult for independent observers to verify claims. Technical problems are a real issue and insurgents have every incentive to spuriously claim responsibility for accidents for propaganda purposes.
“Proliferation aside, these infrared-guided shoulder-launched weapons are essentially low-altitude weapons that are difficult to employ and relatively easy to defeat,” U.S. Air Force veteran Michael Pietrucha, who served as an irregular warfare operations officer, argued in a piece for War on the Rocks.
“In the tens of thousands of sorties flown in the last two decades by U.S. and NATO aircraft in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan, only four fixed-wing combat aircraft have been hit (and two downed) by MANPADS,” he added, using an acronym for the shoulder-fired weapons. “None of the losses was an American aircraft.”
Despite the apparent urgent need for new defensive gear, so far there have been no reports of terrorists shooting down commando aviators with missiles or any other weapons. The U.S. Army blamed the crash of a small, secretive spy plane in Iraq in March on a “dual-engine emergency,” according to the January-May issue of the service’s aviation safety magazine Flightfax.
But, given the potential threat, the Pentagon clearly isn’t taking any chances.