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Portable Missiles May Rise as Threat

Times Staff Writers

Military investigators worked on Monday to determine whether the downing of a CH-47 Chinook helicopter in Iraq will prove to be a fluke or a new phase in the deadly insurgency.

Analysts differed over the significance of the missile attack. Some said such a disaster was inevitable if the Iraqis kept trying, while others said it marked a new level of sophistication in an accelerating guerrilla campaign whose bombings are resulting in ever-higher body counts.

For months, Iraqi insurgents have fired surface-to-air missiles two or three times a week at the growing fleet of U.S. helicopters and planes crisscrossing Iraq. Equipped with countermeasures, the aircraft have managed to evade the heat-seeking missiles that are ubiquitous in Iraq.

On Sunday, the weapons found their mark for the first time, with devastating results. One or possibly two missiles are believed to have hit one of two Chinooks that were carrying dozens of soldiers to the Baghdad airport. Sixteen troops were killed and 20 injured in the deadliest incident since the U.S. launched its invasion March 20.

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Without directly addressing the attack, President Bush on Monday told a group of small-business owners and employees in Alabama that the U.S. mission in Iraq was vital.

“The enemy in Iraq believes America will run. That’s why they’re willing to kill innocent civilians, relief workers, coalition troops,” Bush said. “America will never run.”

Hours after Bush spoke, the violence in Iraq continued. A U.S. soldier was killed Monday and another was wounded north of Tikrit in an attack involving a homemade bomb, military authorities said. The death brought the number of U.S. soldiers reported killed to 378 since the war began.

As part of the reconstruction effort, Congress on Monday approved an $87.5-billion aid package for Iraq and Afghanistan.

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In Iraq, meanwhile, U.S. military investigators hauled away the Chinook wreckage, searching for clues to its vulnerability.

Most military aircraft flying in Iraq are outfitted with at least one of two types of countermeasures -- flares and chaff -- that have proved extremely effective. Flares, hotter than the aircraft’s engines when discharged, deceive or confuse the missiles. The metallic chaff confuses any enemy electronics by acting as jammers.

Military investigators are looking into the possibility that the downed Chinook either was not outfitted with flares or was unable to deploy them. They are also trying to determine if crews were sufficiently varying their flying times and routes to hinder enemy attack. Helicopters are more vulnerable to missile attacks than planes because they fly much lower to the ground.

Thousands of portable, shoulder-launched missiles, stockpiled by the Iraqi regime before the invasion, are unaccounted for. But they are such a well-known technology that the U.S. no longer considered them a serious threat.

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The missiles that militants have regularly fired at planes in Iraq are typically Russian- designed Strelas, or SA-7s, or similar models. Weighing 30 pounds and measuring about five feet long, they are easy to smuggle across Iraq’s porous borders. They can be fired as high as 14,000 feet, beyond the normal cruising altitude of a heavily laden Chinook.

The missiles are so common, not just in Iraq but around the world, that they have become the missile of choice for terrorist organizations -- Al Qaeda among them, said Jim O’Halloran, a weapons expert and editor of Jane’s Land-Based Air Defense.

Even so, the weapons are not considered particularly sophisticated. They were fielded by the Soviet army as far back as the mid-1960s, and the American and other advanced militaries developed effective defenses against them years ago.

Another shoulder-fired missile in the old Iraqi army’s inventory, the Igla, or SA-18, is equipped with special filters to defeat flares and other countermeasures deployed by U.S. aircraft. But the Iraqis are believed to have far fewer of the more advanced Iglas, and there is no evidence that the more sophisticated missile was fired on Sunday.

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Former high-ranking officers in the Iraqi military said that Sunday’s attack on the Chinook would have been relatively easy for anyone with even minimal training. But they said it required careful surveillance to know the flight route and plan a quick getaway.

“This is a brand-new step for the resistance,” said former Brig. Gen. Maher, who declined to give his full name. “It means that the resistance has become more sophisticated.”

The size of Iraqi stockpiles of surface-to-air missiles and rocket-propelled grenades is unknown. The International Institute for Strategic Studies says there were 850 surface-to-air missiles in prewar Iraq. But that figure probably covers only vehicle-mounted or fixed-site missiles, not portable SA-7s.

The Pentagon estimates there are thousands of the portable systems in Iraq and believes a considerable number are in the hands of guerrillas in the Sunni Triangle west and north of Baghdad -- the approach route for many incoming aircraft.

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The threat prompted U.S. officials this summer to offer $500 for any shoulder-fired missile surrendered by residents. But that is far less than the black-market rate. The Pentagon will not disclose how many of the weapons it has collected.

Matt Schroeder, a research associate at the Federation of American Scientists, said the destruction of the Chinook was the result of the U.S. failure to more rapidly secure weapons and ammunition stockpiles.

“Small arms and light weapons are often a peripheral element in U.S. foreign policy, and that seems to have been the case again in Iraq,” Schroeder said. “It just hasn’t garnered the same type of attention as other weapons,” particularly weapons of mass destruction.

“We’re a little late off the ball on this,” Schroeder added, saying that 27 guerrilla and terrorist organizations are suspected of having acquired the portable missiles. “These are nasty groups with agendas that are hostile to U.S. interests. And it’s just going to get worse until they really take steps to mop up the weapons that are out there and secure stockpiles.”

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Charles Heyman, a senior defense analyst for Jane’s Defense Consultancy in London, said the missiles are easy to fire, although to learn to hit a target, shooters need “a bit of practice.”

Since it appears that two missiles may have been launched -- some villagers reported seeing two flashes before the hit -- the people firing probably had military training, Heyman said. “While it’s possible to evade a Strela, it’s much more difficult to evade two. So in the military it’s standard to use at least two.”

Sunday’s attack was a warning that with scores of Army helicopters and Air Force cargo planes plying Iraqi skies, even known threats can be lethal, military analysts said.

“They’ve been firing these things for ages out there. They have been trying to hit someone for a long time,” O’Halloran said. “We’ve defeated this thing up until now. We don’t feel we have to worry about it, but every now and then one slips through, and the more planes you have up there, the greater chance there is of that.”

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All but four of the soldiers who were injured were flown by Air Force C-17 transport Monday to Ramstein Air Base in Germany and treated at the U.S. military’s Landstuhl Regional Medical Center. Nine were admitted to the intensive-care unit, said hospital spokeswoman Marie Shaw.

“They are being evaluated and surgeries are planned throughout the day,” she said.

In Baghdad on Monday, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition confirmed that three projectiles were fired from an area in southwestern Baghdad, with one hitting the ground at a facility of the Army’s 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, known as the Wolfpack Camp, and two falling near central Baghdad. No injuries were reported.

Monday evening, a car bomb exploded in the holy city of Karbala, about 55 miles south of Baghdad. The bomb, which according to newswires was placed in a parked car near the Imam Hussein mosque, a major pilgrimage site, killed three people and injured 12.

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Schrader reported from Washington and Rubin from Baghdad. Staff writer Jeffrey Fleishman in Berlin contributed to this report.


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