February 01, 2005

The Herc crash

About the Al-Jazeera tape of a British C-130 crash claimed by the terrorists... on the odd chance anyone seeks this site's opinion, based on our previous SAM stories, it should go without saying that there's no shoulder-launched missile in existence that could take down a C-130 Hercules instantaneously in midflight, and there's zero reason to believe the insurgents have anything big enough (like a telephone pole-sized SAM-2 or Patriot). (The separate Ansar al-Islam claim that an anti-tank weapon was used can also be dismissed out of hand.) The footage of the push-button control mechanism for the "missile" is not for any known surface-to-air system I've ever seen or heard of, and seems as bogus in this context as the footage of the missile itself... I agree with the experts that that part of the video looks at first glance like a Katyusha artillery rocket on a ground-to-ground trajectory (lots of footage of those around).

The CNN-quoted expert is right... the missile in the footage is large, and fast, with no evident yaw... those would be indications of radar guidance in a ground-to air system, and no one believes the insurgents have radar (at best, they have heat-seeking or possibly laser-guided missiles). It is, however, also consistent with a surface-to-surface missile at the start of a ballistic trajectory, which is why I'm betting the footage is of an artillery rocket. No footage of either launch or impact is another indication of its fraudulence.

I can see only two realistic possibilities for why this plane crashed: mechanical failure unrelated to terrorists (something big, too, like a centerline gasoline tank explosion) is still a possibility, although unlikely in such a normally reliable aircraft. More likely, though, is a bomb... and the Al Jazeera footage is meant in part to disguise how that was done (misleading people into thinking it might be a missile extends the threat across the entire country, and may leave open the possibility of a repeat.) Alternatively the footage was done up long ago, and was being kept in the can until some act of fatal chance could be found to pin it on... unlikely, but still possible.

Here's a typical Katyusha launch pic. Note the similarities to the image in the Sun story. Here's a typical SAM missile in boost... note the significant control surfaces (fins) required for maneuvering in-flight, that are not necessary in artillery rockets.

UPDATE: The British papers are now saying the plane was ferrying explosives, increasing the possibility of this not being related to terrorists. However, the actual Al Jazeera footage of the crash site obtained from the terrorists is now believed to be genuine, meaning their cameraman was at the crash site long before any rescue party... the only two ways that could happen would be some really fortuitous amateur videoography by a terrorist sympathizer, or the terrorists had a reasonable expectation a plane was going down in that area that day. Most experts now agree with the conclusion above, that the actual missile footage was tacked on for dramatic effect and does not indicate anything about the actual weapon used. (With one interesting exception... see continuation.)

There's actually a connection here between the Herc crash, and the killing of four Canadians by an American F-16 in Kandahar back in 2002. Prewar Iraq did occasionally, it is now confirmed, set up or at least planned to set up surface-to-surface rockets (107 and 122mm), with modified warheads, as ersatz surface-to-air weapons... basically trying to take down American planes in the no-fly zones or in the coming war by shooting a whole lot of the unguided weapons straight up. There's no evidence if this was done very often, or even at all, and there's no indication it was ever remotely effective.

However, in 2002 this was classified information, known only to US and allied airmen who needed to know... presumably they didn't want the Iraqis to know that they knew (possibly from a defector, or satellite/aerial imagery that needed its source protected).

"Psycho" Schmidt, the American pilot who killed the Canadians outside Kandahar, was part of an air unit that was also patrolling in the Iraqi no-fly zone at the time. He claimed, minutes after the fatal attack, that he thought he'd seen a rocket launcher firing from where the Canadians were, and that was what gave him justification to fire back. No one who's looked into it believes this to be any more than post-facto justification on his part... for one thing, there was no indication anyone in Afghanistan was using surface-to-surface rockets this way, only Iraq, so he had the wrong country for starters. But that was his initial story and he was sticking to it... this led to some interesting redactions from the early cockpit transcripts, that led to some confusion about Schmidt's exact thought process.

Some people trying to figure out why the Iraqi resistance tacked artillery rocket footage onto their shoot-down tape have suggested that maybe the insurgents are trying this supposed shoot-down trick now. It's hard to credit... the only way it would have worked in prewar Iraq was to shoot an awful lot of the things at once, and even then, accurate timing to hit a target on an unknown flight path at 15,000 feet far from an airfield, without at least some kind of radar early-warning, would be EXTREMELY lucky. Like, lightning-strike lucky. If the Iraqi rebels today had the dozens of artillery rockets required, there'd be LOTS of other better targets for those in the Baghdad area, too. Plus the footage pretty clearly shows the rockets being fired horizontally... not up, so even if by some chance this was a missile or rocket attack, it still wasn't the rockets on this videotape.

Posted by BruceR at 01:58 PM