It has always been surprising that American, British and other International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) nations operating in Afghanistan have not come under greater surface-to-air (SAM) missile attacks. As improvised explosive devices (IEDs) became successful in Iraq then became the major threat to the movement of ground troops in Afghanistan, ISAF coalition forces took to the air for troop movement and re-supply wherever possible.
Direct fire support from the air has become relied upon and is provided by attack helicopters and fast-jets. But the engagement of coalition aircraft by man portable air defense systems (MANPADS) has, at least publicly, been a rarity.
This is almost a taboo subject in open discussion: senior commanders and those flying the missions in-country don’t talk about it much and virtually all the reports of aircraft downed by insurgents are the result of rocket propelled grenade (RPG) hits or small arms fire.
There is an understanding that government agencies have been working very hard behind the scenes to ensure that this kind of weapon does not make it into the hands of the Taliban or al Qaeda. There have been a variety of ‘sting’ operations to take these weapons out of the hands of arms dealers. The old stock of SAMs, especially Stingers, that were given to the Mujahideen to fight the Russians during their occupation of Afghanistan, were largely thought to have degraded in their capability.
However, the ability to control the dissemination of MANPADS to terrorist groups and counter-insurgents seems to have been blown open by recent events in Libya where potentially thousands of MANPADS have been stolen and potentially shipped out of the country.
According to recent media reports, Libya had an estimated 20,000 surface-to-air missiles before the February uprising began, one of the largest national stocks internationally. An untold number have reportedly already been stolen from unguarded warehouses during and immediately after the struggle for independence from Col. Gaddafi.
In recent articles Con Coughlin, a writer in the British Sunday Telegraph newspaper, suggested that an Iranian Quds Force team (a paramilitary wing of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards) “… traveled to Libya following the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime and smuggled hundreds of surface-to-air weapons out of the country.” He cites military intelligence officers in Libya who have indicated that the stolen arms could “include sophisticated Russian-made SA-24 missiles that were sold to Libya in 2004. The missile can shoot down aircraft flying at 11,000 feet, and is regarded as the Russian equivalent of the American ‘stinger’ missiles.”
While the primary threat is thought to be terrorist acts against western civilian aircraft, there is also the question of how widespread the proliferation of these weapons could be.
As Iran is an ally of Sudan (where it is presumed many of the stolen weapons are being kept in the short term), and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards are suspected of training Islamic terrorist groups there, the prospect of weapons getting into the hands of terrorists is very real.
Likewise, security professionals believe that al Qaeda may also have been able to organize a similar kind of theft. “I think the probability of al-Qaeda being able to smuggle some of these stinger-like missiles out of Libya is probably pretty high,” said Richard Clarke, former White House National Security Advisor, in a September 2011 interview with ABC News.
If that turns out to be the case, and with turmoil blighting countries such as Egypt to monitor al Qaeda sympathizers there, the case of smuggling the weapons into Afghanistan can be made.
If MANPADS do find their way into Afghanistan then it would rapidly change the whole operational balance and military strategy. It already looks likely that, as in Iraq, when the U.S., British and ISAF ground forces pull out of Afghanistan around the end of 2014/15, many elements of air support will have to stay behind to assist the national Afghan forces, who have none of the elements in place to be self supporting in air power.
If the threat of ground-to-air missiles increases significantly, and with a corresponding reduction in the numbers of trained troops that can react to that threat, a very dangerous scenario could quickly develop where high-threat/no-fly zones begin appearing over Afghanistan. That could give al-Qaeda and the Taliban just the opportunity to strengthen and reorganize once again in the Provinces, with dire consequences for the Karzai government.