November 28, 2003


(See previous article) The Paris Match article on the Baghdad SAM attack is out, and although some people are angry that journalists got this close to the other side, it's still a remarkable article... the first to really convey some understanding of a real Iraqi guerrilla leader's point of view.

It's a must-read, but of course it's in French, so I've translated it here. Thoughts on article and photos (which are all Flashed up and non-extractable, so you have to go see them yourself) follow:

First off, the article indicates the guerrillas had both a SA-7 and a SA-14 with them that morning. (They also admit they're nearly out of missiles.) The first missile (fired by the fellow in the green combat uniform and red kaffiyeh) was the one caught on tape... the second is fired by the fellow in the black robe, and there's a remarkable photo of it leaving the launcher (trust me, I've tried to take that exact same photo a few times, and it's tricky), as well as another photo of it missing as the Airbus reverses course away to the left. (That was a fast bank on the pilot's part, btw.). That's definitely a SA-14: you can tell by the now completely obvious ball-shaped front-assembly (there's yet another pic of the same missile launcher leaning up against a car.)

The trouble is, you never get a close look at the other missile, the one that was fired first and actually hit. It's not impossible, I guess, that the actual successful shot was actually the older missile referred to: but that'd be a VERY lucky shot (not impossible, but lucky). The leader says they had three missiles left, so I'm still thinking they actually fired 2 SA-14s and the third, unused one is they one they mention, basically a last SA-7 that was carried along in the pickup as a spare.

There's also a nice shot or two of the Airbus, its civilian markings clearly visible in the zoom lens, banking away, streaming smoke from its outboard left wing. The engine is untouched; small SAMs have proximity fuzes, so they don't have to rely on direct impacts to kill... this missile apparently detonated above or below the aircraft as it passed, and only threw some shrapnel into the left wing (the far wing from the shooter's point of view). This is typical for small heat-seekers, especially for high-deflection shots.

At launch, the plane is estimated to be 3 km out and 1.5 km up, indicating the launch point was closer to the airport than I previously thought. Given the indications of farmland and the shadow patterns, they're probably to the southwest, facing the city with the airport to their front left. Still, it wasn't a tail shot, it's rear-quarter at best, which would make any success with a SA-7 quite remarkable, if true. For SA-14s, it would be an excellent spot. Slant range would have been, if you believe the French writers' estimate, around 4500m at point of impact, which would still be extreme range for an SA-14... almost too extreme, in fact. At that distance, waiting even a few seconds more (as the second missile shooter did) would mean an almost guaranteed miss even with a SA-14, as the missile would certainly lose steering control before it reached its target.

Also, amazingly, the early detection was done by sound and naked eye by the team leader. This surprised me, if only because you have no idea what you're shooting at that way. The article recounts how they were convinced they were firing on a military transport. If I had only a couple missiles left, I'd borrow a couple cell phones and know for sure. But hey.*

The rest of the article is equally fascinating, as the leader of the SAM team makes a series of outlandish claims about his victories against Americans, but then gets down to detail on what he would consider victory, and other details of how his group is fighting their own little war at the moment.

ADDENDUM: Long story short: by his own admission, the missile crew has fired 27 SAMs at relatively slow-moving aircraft, including at least a few SA-14s, and hit or come close to hitting no more than 6 times (and even this number is probably exaggerated). They're probably good enough to score a little more reliably now, but they've also run out of missiles for the moment. A lot of this is just shakeout, and figuring out how the things actually work: Western SAM teams practice dozens of launches on realistic simulators that mimic the jumping of weight off your shoulder when the missile launches, before their first real missile is fired. These guys never had that training, and there's no indication they knew anything about air defence tactics either, picking it up instead through trial and error. That's resourceful, sure, but it's wasteful; imagine what a trained SAM crew from a Western army with 27 missiles to work with could have done in their place. Terrorist attacks on civilian air elsewhere in the world, unless exceptionally well-financed and planned, would meet many of the same obstacles these guys did, with less forgiveness for multiple attempts.

ADDENDUM #2: No way anyone could have known this, of course, but if the crew staking out the Baghdad airport really was down to their last SA-7 this week, that means the President's Thanksgiving flight wasn't actually in much danger at all.

*On reflection this probably cost them the kill, more than anything else... if a better early detection plan had allowed them to fire five seconds earlier, probably the second SA-14 would have gone home, increasing the chance of the plane's destruction.

Posted by BruceR at 10:03 PM