August 13, 2003


"There is a difference between saying that our dealings with Saddam have to be viewed in the context of the September 11 attacks and claiming that he was behind them. Some people still can't grasp that."

--Bill Herbert, today

“Evidence of a meeting in Prague between a senior Iraqi intelligence agent and Mohamed Atta, the Sept. 11 ringleader, is convincing,."

--Richard Perle, New York Times, December, 2001

"Mohammed Atta met Saddam Hussein in Baghdad prior to September 11. We have proof of that, and we are sure he wasn’t just there for a holiday... the meeting is one of the motives for an American attack on Iraq.”

--Perle again, in an interview with an Italian newspaper, September, 2002

Posted by BruceR at 03:29 PM


Josh Marshall has probably said everything worth saying on the SAM sting. But for easy reference, here's the Flit post from the last attempted missile attack on an airliner. The conclusion, in short, still stands: "Firm reports of [modern SAMs] in terrorist hands, when it eventually comes, will be considerably more alarming." This wasn't it.

The fake SA-18 that was offered up to the arms merchant dupe is an early model of the current Russian shoulder-launched heat seeker. The "Igla" slightly less effective than the current first-line military SA-16 (the "Igla-1"), but the launchers look very similar. The SA-16, is of course, the missile responsible for arguably the most significant anti-aircraft kill in history, the assassination of the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi that plunged central Africa into chaos in 1994.

Chuck Schumer is calling today for countermeasures for civilian aircraft... it's hard to imagine what kind of countermeasures could make a difference against this threat, though. The attack point, if the target is a commercial jet, is going to be shortly after launch. Pilot visibility to the rear and below is notoriously bad, and other than visual indications (ie a smoke trail) there's no way to tell a heat-seeker has located you (at least with readily available technology today: see below). So pilot-activated countermeasures are likely to be about as useful as a pistol in a cockpit. More efforts like this sting, to put fear into the middlemen who could arrange the export of missiles like this into the country for any would-be terrorist, is likely to be far more cost-effective.

Compared to the Sa-7s used in Kenya, the likely launch zone is somewhat wider in the case of modern all-aspect missiles, but it's still basically predictable. The launch area, if and when this is attempted, will be in a more or less straight line off one end of a well-used launchway, so the shooter is not dealing with a crossing target. A kill against a multi-jet airliner by a single small missile is rather unlikely anyway... you'd want to maximize your chances by firing when there's fuel in the tanks, not when they're empty and the plane's more maneuverable, so landing approach is right out. Mid flight is, as we discussed before with the TWA 800 conspiracists, impossible for any smugglable missile.

Okay, so the attack will likely come shortly after launch. But odds are a multi-engine jet would survive a single missile attack, particularly if the terrorists hedge their bets by leaving the proximity fuzing on the warhead on, so the missile goes off behind one engine and showers the engine and wing with shrapnel. Pilots are trained to respond to the loss of an engine on takeoff, and absent major structural damage, they could well recover from a single missile hit. So if a commercial airliner were the target of serious terrorists, we'd almost certainly be talking multiple missiles (as was the case in Kenya), and a team of trained individuals, who had previous experience with the weapon (these are powerful weapons to launch off your shoulder, trust me, and success by a first-time launcher, even for an easier-to-use missile like the SA-16 or Stinger, can't reasonably be expected). Even the Rwandan hit used multiple launchers, against a small aircraft that was probably ballistic wreckage after the first hit.

That kind of team would be a somewhat easier target for domestic intelligence to pick up, as they'd likely have to have been trained outside the U.S... there's no equivalent to civilian U.S. "flight schools" for missiles. They'd need at least part of the team to have conducted extensive reconnaissance of airports beforehand, including an extensive familiarity with local terrain, and launch schedules... there'd be nothing worse than going through all this effort and taking out a FedEx plane by mistake. It's by its nature a much more complex effort than something like Sept. 11, because now you're importing expensive equipment (likely coming by sea), as well as people (likely coming by air), and marrying them up in a foreign city. Doable? Possibly. But one can't help feeling that when this kind of attack is finally attempted again, it'll be in a country that's easier to enter, ie, not across an ocean. An airport in Delhi or Moscow (or Djakarta) would have a much higher chance of payoff for the effort required.

So I'm still not too worried about North American commercial air at the moment. Well, I am, but I'm more worried about hijackers or bombs than missiles. If that's any comfort to you.

UPDATE: I should add that air forces are making rapid progress with developing passive infrared countermeasure systems, which would enable detection and automatic reaction to a missile launched at a commercial liner. This technology is still in the real early stages, though, and its cross-fleet deployment right now, before it's been successfully deployed on a similar military aircraft fleet and the many bugs to come worked out and the cost brought down, still seems rather premature.

The most likely candidate at the moment for Schumer, et al, would be something like the AN/AAR-47, which detects incoming missiles by their jet plume and can be linked to a flare dispenser. This system currently protects some of the USAF's C-17 Globemaster III fleet, which is at least a comparable airframe. (Other similar systems protect much of the largebody Special Operations fleet, and are gradually being extended to helicopters and fast jets.) The cost per system for a modern passive detector is on the order of $3 million US per plane. (Schumer has publicly said the cost for the commercial fleet per airframe would be half that, which seems optimistic based on the evidence: if nothing else, interactions of such a system in a crowded airport environment have never really been evaluated yet, not to mention the interactions of this kind of system with all the other systems on the airliner itself... it's important to remember the Swissair tragedy was caused by a poor installation plan of a new onboard computer gaming system.)

Posted by BruceR at 10:48 AM