Missile Threats Against Civil Aviation

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By Boaz Zalmanovicz

2569361_m featureThe nature of terror and guerilla warfare requires using mobile, easily concealable weapons; shoulder-launched missiles fit the description perfectly. More than 700,000 missiles were manufactured since the 1970s, mostly in the U.S. and the Soviet Union but also in other countries such as China and Sweden. Reports indicate that shoulder-launched missiles are very common among various militant groups.

The reasons terrorists and guerrillas use shoulder-launched missiles are:

  • Lethality – a missile hit on a passenger plane is usually lethal. Civilian planes are not protected against missiles. According to a 2003 report civilian planes have been attacked by these missiles 35 times within the last 26 years. 24 went down, with more than 500 fatalities.
  • Mobility, compactness – shoulder-launched missiles are relatively small and light. A Stinger missile, for example, is 1.52 meters long weighs 10.1 kgs, with the launcher itself weighing another 15.2 kgs. They can be mobilized and concealed very easily.
  • Low cost – Older models are sold on the black market for hundreds of dollars, while newer models cost tens of thousands. Affordable prices as far as terrorists are concerned.
  • Ease of use – using the missile launchers does require training, but the system’s homing capabilities make using it relatively simple.
  • Vulnerable targets – military aircraft have defense systems – which do not provide a total immunity. Civilian planes, however, lack any defenses at all, making them relatively vulnerable.

Terrorists use these missiles against civilian or military targets.

Military targets – one of the main advantages of countries and armies against terrorist organizations is aerial superiority: Bombing targets, watching the enemy’s every move and mobilizing forces with helicopters. The weaker side will do anything to minimize this advantage. One of the main weapons used against the Soviets in Afghanistan were Stinger missiles supplied by the U.S. They destroyed and damaged hundreds of helicopters and planes and severely limited the Soviet’s aerial superiority. One of nightmares of the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan was the reappearance of the Stingers. Hamas and Hezbollah, not surprisingly, aim to base their air defense system on this type of weapon, challenging Israeli air superiority in the area. The topic of military defenses against missiles is too wide to be discussed here.

iHLSIsrael Homeland Security

Civilian targets – commercial planes are a favorite terrorist target, shoulder-launched missiles being just one of their methods of attack. Israelis are familiar with the attack on the Arkia plane in November 2002, in Mombasa, Kenya, using SE-7 missiles. There have been many other attempts, some successful, over the last few decades. The financial damage caused by shutting down airports, even for very short periods of time, is enormous.

Dealing with shoulder-launched missiles is costly and complex. The following defense methods all have to be used in combination:

  • Offensive operations – against terrorist organizations in general, more specifically against those likely to use these missiles.
  • Blocking missile distribution and acquisition by potential attackers – the lesson from the Afghan militants and their Stinger missiles – distribution has to be limited. This is why the U.S. doesn’t transfer missiles to Syrian rebels. A number of treaties and agreements are aimed at preventing distribution of missiles, while additional resources are invested in collecting missiles already in the field: Taking over, or purchasing, missiles from non-functioning states. Libyan missiles, for example, have spread across Africa and elsewhere. Another method is installing technological systems that prevent missile use by non-sanctioned elements.
  • Disrupting smuggling routes – offensive, intelligence, legal, financial and other actions aimed at preventing smuggling and weakening smugglers and missile sales.
  • Preventing missile fire by improving airport security – modern shoulder-launched missiles require relatively large secure areas – up to hundreds of kilometers – around airports, but securing the immediate vicinity can prevent the launch of older missiles, including anti-tank weapons.
  • Adapting aerial transportation processes and techniques – changing flight paths and altitudes, changing takeoff and landing routes and collecting intelligence in order to prepare for potential attacks.
  • Countermeasures – Elbit, for example, developed a missile defense system for planes, to be installed aboard Israeli commercial aircraft. These systems are very expensive, however, and only a few countries would be capable of enforcing their use. The system’s efficiency against missiles from various technological generations, or missiles using different targeting methods, isn’t constant and requires ongoing upgrades and adaptations.
  • Improving aircraft survivability – adding redundant systems and protection for fuel tanks, for example.

Shoulder-launched missiles are an efficient weapon, used by militants and terrorists to overcome the aerial superiority of the enemy. Military aircraft are equipped with defense systems and countermeasures. Protecting civilian aviation against these missiles is complex and costly, but the missile threat itself is equally severe. Utilizing the methods described above may prevent missile launches, lower lethality, prevent damage and save lives.

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