Reports from Libya and leaks from the White House confirm that thousands of man portable air defense missiles (MANPADS) have gone missing in Libya. The estimate goes as high 20,000 missiles. The MANPADs in question are the Russian made SA-7 Grail. It is a low altitude heat seeking missile (passive infrared homing guidance) missile with a high explosive warhead that entered service in 1970. It has a range of up to 4000 meters (about 2 miles.) It has been seen in almost every conflict where Soviet made weapons have been involved.
The SA-7 missile when fired seeks the nozzle of a jet engine because it is the hottest part. Some analysts believe that this reduces the lethality of the missile. The missile because of its heat seeking nature must be fired at the rear of an air plane. The most effective counter-measure against it has been either flares fired by the aircraft once the missile launch is detected or a laser in the tail of the aircraft that is pointed at the heat seeking warhead.
US military aircraft are fitted with a suite of counter-measures that reduce their vulnerability. However, the State Department reports that since the 1970s more than 40 civilian planes have been hit by such missiles. Reports are that it would cost about $1 million per plane to fit civilian planes with the laser system mentioned above. (It has been tested and is effective.) Since it will be nearly impossible to round up all of the missing MANPADS the US should start by requiring all air craft that are used in international travel to be fitted with the defensive system. Additionally, all new air craft being manufactured should be fitted with such safety systems. Additionally, given the characteristics of the SA-7 security on the perimeter of airports should be increased. The 4 KM range and low altitude engagement capability suggest that a terrorist would have to engage a commercial aircraft just after takeoff and possibly on final approach to land. Law enforcement officers should be able to determine the areas where a terrorist would have to be from a detailed analysis as suggested above. A proper analysis of the terrain would suggest likely firing areas and thus areas deserving of increased observation.
Readers will remember that I was concerned about NATO’s support of the Libyan rebels for a whole series of reasons. One would have hoped that NATO, if it thought about the end state that might come in Libya would have thought about securing such things as SA-7s, chemical and nuclear weapons production capabilities and their related substances (if they are still there). Covert forces should have been inserted to secure these locations or they should have been destroyed. But obviously neither occurred.
As the world looks for the estimated 20,000 missing missiles immediate efforts must be taken by the airlines to secure their aircraft and by law enforcement elements to secure airports.