March 08, 2005

C-130 update

The British defence ministry has apparently ruled out non-hostile causes or sabotage in the Iraqi election day crash of a C-130 transport north of Baghdad. That leaves surface fire, which I had identified previously as the least likely of a number of possibilities. (See previous entries here, here and here.)

We're still looking at very little data here. Crucial questions for which there have been no answers to date include: did the crew issue any distress call, indicating a more progressive breakup, or was destruction more or less instantaneous? Did the plane take any evasive maneuvers or countermeasures? For that matter, what was its actual mission? We just don't know.

The Janes expert quoted beats me to the obvious conclusion... that the plane was flying at low altitude for some reason. At 5,000 feet or less, a shoulder-launched missile strike could possibly do enough damage that the plane's pilot simply couldn't recover in time. Another possibility at that altitude would be evasive maneuvers for even a non-impacting missile leading to ground collision. We only ever had the journalists' word for it that transport planes routinely stay above 15,000 feet... there has never been any specific indication of this plane's altitude at the time of destruction. And Baghdad to Balad is a pretty short hop... by the time you got to 15,000, you'd have to start coming back down again.

I have no doubt the British and Americans are concerned about new missiles being employed in Iraq... but I'd have thought that would refer to SA-16/-18 heatseekers... which greatly increase the probability of impact, but have little effect on the slant range/max altitude. The simple fact though, that they're more reliable compared to the ancient SA-7/-14s we've seen so far gives the shooter some options to engage planes in midflight or farther from airports that the older missiles did not: they do not, however, kill higher, or carry a larger explosive charge. (As mentioned here before, the most destructive SAM strike in history, the one that killed the Rwandan and Burundian presidents in 1994, sparking the Rwandan genocide, was a SA-16.) I still think it's pretty implausible that the insurgents have anything larger or more sophisticated to play with than shoulder-launched missiles and possibly 23 mm AA guns.

I should add that the question of what actually did kill the plane in question has little bearing on the veracity of the terrorist video played on Al Jazeera, which is provably fake for all kinds of other reasons, as discussed in previous entries. And I'm frankly not sure how the Independent justifies "hit by missile" in the headline, as that's not what the Ministry of Defence interim report actually says.

Posted by BruceR at 09:48 AM