EDITOR’S NOTE: On Tuesday, a British arms dealer was arrested in Newark, New Jersey as he tried to sell surface-to-air missiles to an undercover federal agent. The SAM threat is not a new one; Rich Lowry wrote about it in his syndicated column in December of 2002, reprinted here.
New York’s junior senator is not otherwise known for her security credentials or for enthusiasm for defense systems with a Reagan-era ring to them, but she has written a letter to Tom Ridge urging him to explore ways to defend American airliners from portable surface-to-air missiles.
The proximate cause for Clinton’s worry was the firing of two Russian-made “Strela” missiles at an Israeli airliner in an al-Qaeda attack in Kenya a few weeks ago. The missiles missed, but their contrails delivered a sobering warning nonetheless.
According to one estimate, almost 30 commercial aircraft have been downed by shoulder-fired missiles during the past three decades. The Rwandan civil war, for instance, shifted into its genocidal phase after a Russian-made shoulder-fired SAM downed the plane carrying the country’s president in 1994.
Such is the post-9/11 world that U.S. policymakers have to worry about tactics from African war zones coming to an airport near you.
Jane’s Defense Weekly reports that “Thousands of Strela missiles were produced by the U.S.S.R., and the system was copied or built under a license by China, Egypt, North Korea, Yugoslavia and several Warsaw Pact members.” The corrupt Russian military-industrial complex, willing to sell almost anything, is a ready source of Strelas and far more sophisticated models, which have ended up in the hands of Chechnyan separatists and other Islamic militants.
The United States spread its Stinger missiles around Afghanistan in the ’80s, although there is some question whether the batteries have given out on them or not (they are equipped with long-lived thermal batteries, which put even Energizers to shame).
One of these missiles would be as easy to smuggle into the United States as a set of golf clubs, while deploying one would be a matter of flipping open a car trunk. And everyone who has ever been near an airport knows how jetliners can seem achingly low, and slow.
Portable missiles are by no means miracle weapons. The errant Strelas shot in Kenya are technologically dated. Firing the missiles also requires a minimal level of proficiency, which the Kenya shooters probably lacked.
The missiles also pack a small punch, with 3- to 7-pound warheads, so they have had most of their military successes with helicopters and small planes. Some doubt whether they could bring down a big airliner even with a direct hit, but civilian aircraft are much more fragile than military planes (the second airliner to hit the World Trade Center was within a few miles per hour of breaking up in midair).
The fact is that downing airliners is probably the easiest way for terrorists to cause mass American casualties, absent weapons of mass destruction. And the mere act of shooting at a U.S. airliner would be enough to rock the aviation industry and U.S. economy.
What to do? More vigorous patrolling around airports is an obvious measure, although it might not be practical in the long run. Aviation expert Chuck Nash estimates that to secure Washington National Airport from a portable missile threat would mean covering hundreds of square miles.
Even if the United States were to feel reasonably certain that in the new security-conscious environment such missiles couldn’t be smuggled into the United States and deployed near airports, there would still be a threat to U.S. planes flying overseas.
That’s why a sensor and laser system mounted on planes to destroy incoming missiles might be necessary. Current versions cost about $5 million, but the price would likely drop to $2 million or less per system with wider production.
That’s still pricey, but expense is a matter of perspective. The airlines invested tens of millions of dollars in their in-flight entertainment systems so you can watch Mr. Deeds. What is protecting an aircraft worth?
As for skeptics who think “it could never happen here,” they would do well to adopt a simple principle: If Hillary is worried, you should be, too.
Copyright 2002 King Features Syndicate.