November 23, 2003


I like Juan Cole's work on Iraq a lot, but I hope his analysis of Iraqi Shiite politics is more reliable than his latest post, which for once I actually have the personal knowledge to check him on.

A DHL plane landing at Baghdad airport with one of its engines on fire after it was hit by a surface to air missile. It was said to have landed safely. Dozens of such attacks have been launched at aircraft landing at the airport in recent months, but they have usually been foiled by a steep spiral landing technique used by military transport pilots and others. Commercial airliners cannot spiral in closely in that way, which is why they are still not flying into Baghdad. Guerrillas in Iraq appear to have gotten hold of shoulder held missile launchers and missiles more sophisticated than the old SA-7s, possibly SA-14s or SA-16s

The Baghdad strike was, for what it's worth, a textbook attack on commercial air using a man-portable SAM. All the standard factors are present: permissive ground environment, attack on takeoff (not, as Cole's entry seems to suggest, on landing). The plane, a two-engine Airbus A300, turned around and made a safe emergency landing with one engine still on fire.

The "spiral in" stuff is something Cole read somewhere. An A300 is about as commercial an airliner as you can get, and is roughly as unmaneuverable as the large military transports that have been flying into Baghdad as well. They no doubt have steep approach and departure paths, but statistics show the vast majority of SAM attacks on commercial air take place on takeoff, not on landing (it makes much more sense from the missile-firer's point of view that way). It's passenger flights that have not resumed, although few cargo carriers are interested in taking a chance on Baghdad at the moment, and rightly so. The survival and successful landing of a plane this size after a direct hit on an engine is not unusual, either. And the first reports are that this attack, once again, was carried out by one of those ubiquitous old SA-7s... nothing more sophisticated. So basically the whole paragraph is wrong from start to finish.

UPDATE: Cole responds at the end of his post. If it wasn't clear, here's my beef. Cole draws a total of three of his own conclusions in that paragraph, and each of the three is either unsupported by the facts or just wrong. Cole talks only about landings, and spiral landing techniques... whereas most successful portable SAM attacks historically have taken place against aircraft taking off. Logically, other factors must have played a larger role in reducing losses thus far than just landing technique (Iraqi inexperience, or good area surveillance for instance.) Second, an A300 carrying cargo is just as capable of "spiralling in" as one containing passengers... the reason there's no airline service to Baghdad at the moment has more to do with the different risk-assessments of passenger and cargo carriers than any aerodynamic limitations of the airframes they both use. Third, as said before, whether there are SA-14s in Iraq or not, they weren't used here.

I have come to count on Prof. Cole to tell me stuff about internal Iraq politics I didn't know. I have to assume he's a reliable informant. But on a subject I know I actually have comparable or greater knowledge to his own (air defence) I find him going 0 for 3. I understandably find that disconcerting.

Posted by BruceR at 01:57 AM