December 02, 2002



I have commented before that the thing that most bugs me about Robt. Fisk, esq. is his frequent habit of making statements that I am reasonably certain he knows to be untrue. I've met the man, he's not that delusional. So when I read statements like this, I can only assume it's just his own contempt for the intellectual ability of his readers that drives him:

"Israel's rabble of an army can kill child stone-throwers with ease. Al-Qa'ida is a quite different opponent. And if Mr Sharon wants to take on Mr bin Laden, he is ensuring that Israel goes to war with its most dangerous enemy in 54 years."

Israel's army a "rabble"? That is not a statement a sane Middle Eastern expert could ever truthfully make or defend. Fisk is both sane and, in the narrow area of Israeli military efficacy, at least as knowledgeable as the next expert. Therefore, he must be lying. The question would be, why? The obvious thought that comes to mind is that Fisk has fancied himself a personal FOA (friend of Osama) before. He has stated he firmly believes the man is still alive. By the flattering prose, is he trying to position himself to gain The Interview of the Century (tm), perhaps?

Posted by BruceR at 11:43 PM



Once again, a topic in the news my professional training gives me a little knowledge about. It has been confirmed, pretty much, that the missiles that fired on the Israeli airliner in Mombasa were Russian-made SA-7 Strelas. The launchers themselves were obviously left behind in order to facilitate flight (being pulled over with a SAM launcher in your vehicle being a pretty good giveaway, even to your average policeman). The SA-7 is an old missile, of limited battlefield utility even when it was new. It's a "rear-aspect heat seeker", meaning it doesn't have the ability to differentiate a plane from the background in the infrared spectrum... it can only home in on the glaring heat of an engine exhaust.

The papers are actually making a little too much of the ease of use or effectiveness of terrorist SAMs. While it's true that the operator skill required is relatively minimal, there's all sorts of other considerations. First off, pre-1980s heat-seeking technology was always inherently inaccurate... the USAF kill rate over Vietnam with Sidewinder missiles slightly better than the SA-7 was only 1 kill for every 7 launched. Now admittedly those were against maneuvering aircraft in most cases, but the pilots can assume to have been practiced and trained... unlike, say, our Kenyan operatives. Even if the operatives here had been twice as effective as American pilots under the circumstances, that would still only give you a 50 per cent chance of a kill with a two-missile spread under optimal conditions.

What would optimal conditions for a SA-7 be? Well, first you need a missile in good condition (these were 30 years old, and likely had had multiple previous owners.) You've got to find a place that allows you a clear straight-on tail view of aircraft taking off. Using SA-7s against landing aircraft would almost certainly be less-than-optimal... you're much more likely to lose homing as the plane descends closer to the ground (if the missile in its course ends up pointing downwards at any point, it'll lose the lockon in the ground background IR). For the same reason, your launch can't be from a built-up area... these things are erratic enough to home on a microwave oven in a high-rise if it comes in the limited vision of the seeker-head. (Early IR seeker heads were extraordinarily limited in vision, for this reason... imagine looking at the world through a straw and aiming yourself at the hottest thing you can see. Now imagine you're moving at 580 m/s...) Your line of vision also needs to be absolutely clear... no power lines, no tree branches either. This tends to limit the number of usable launching spaces to a handful for most metropolitan airports: your average backyard isn't going to do it.

Okay, so you're out in the open just off the "takeoff" end of a runway. You've got to hit that departing plane before it gets more than 4 km away from your launch point, or your missile will burn out first. Even a slow-moving passenger jet will get out of your range envelope in at most 50 seconds, even assuming it doesn't turn as it climbs. Assuming you actually hit close to the max range, you also have to subtract at least 5 seconds, or 0.5km, for your own time of flight.

But where are you? You're at least 500 m from where the wheels left the ground, presumably... even that would be difficult to achieve at most major international airports. More likely the nearest suitable launch area is as much as a kilometre away. You have to let the plane pass over your head and present itself in front of you at a low enough angle to be engaged, so it's at least half-a-kilometre away from you already. You now have to acquire the engine signature and launch that missile. You therefore have at the absolute most 40 seconds to get that missile up, acquire a "tone," and execute the launch sequence, probably much less. Impossible? Obviously not... a trained soldier could do it in 10. But not exactly easy, either. Certainly not something you're going to be able to do without practice. Which means your group had to have enough missiles to do a little practice, not just the one or two, and some kind of training capability: the off-the-shoulder launch of any surface-to-air missile results in a terrific blast that one has to be prepared for.

It should be obvious then, that a terrorist threat with only SA-7s available is actually relatively limited. The best missiles for attacking civilian aircraft would actually be laser-optical guided, ie the British Blowpipe and Javelin (also used by Canadians) or Bofors RBS 70, with the proximity fuzing turned off. You're much more likely with those to get a fuselage hit, increasing the likelihood of crippling damage... and you have an all-aspect engagement capability, meaning you could site your weapon considerably farther from the aircraft's departure line (although you're still likely going to be along the line of flight somewhere), or engage landing planes, as well. However, the training required for these weapons is considerably more again than with "fire-and-forget" infrared, so they can be more or less discounted, too (Canadian Javelin crews, who have to keep their laser trained on a fast moving plane for the missile's entire time of flight, have the reflexes of a pro computer gamer: they spend hours on simulators before they even get to try to fire a real one.)

Since using those isn't likely, the most serious threat for civilian aircraft is the modern all-aspect heatseeker, which has a much more finely tuned seeking head, allowing engagement of landing aircraft, and a much higher probability of keeping the target lock in flight than earlier infrared missiles. There are currently five types in existence: the American Stinger, the Russian SA-16 (famously used to kill the Rwandan president, starting the genocide in that country), the French Mistral, the Japanese Type 91/93, and the Chinese QW series (built in Pakistan as the Anza Mk 2). Firm reports of those weapons in terrorist hands, when it eventually comes, will be considerably more alarming. The SA-7, on the other hand, is a piece of crap... it wasn't particularly "lucky" or unlikely that the Israeli plane in this instance survived intact at all.

Posted by BruceR at 01:01 PM