It was reported Wednesday that the Islamic State is developing its own anti-aircraft capability in a proving ground near the capital Raqqa with the assistance of Western experts. This announcement was panned by the U.S. Department of Defense, which said it will not impact American operations in the region.
“The Syrian air defense network, built largely in the 1970s, once had 25 air defense (AD) brigades with 150 [surface-to-air missile] batteries and 2,000 [anti-aircraft] guns of various calibers; many are now in ISIS hands.” Shoulder-fired missile systems in ISIS control include the Russian-made SA-7 Grail, SA-14 Gremlin, SA-18 Grouse, and SA-24 Grinch missiles, reported the Washington Free Beacon.
I am positive that the Defense Department is correct in saying that whatever rudimentary capability ISIS can throw together will not impact the professionalism and capability of American forces. However, that is not the point I took from the report.
The last four weapon systems listed in the quote are MANPAD missiles. This means “man portable air defense” or in other words, shoulder fired weapon systems designed to target low-flying aircraft. The seeker heads on these missiles typically are designed to acquire a heat source, lock onto it, and then explode a warhead upon impact. The tailpipe of a turbojet engine usually is the target.
Military aircraft have defenses against these types of missiles, such as flares to act as decoys to lure the seeker head away, lasers, and other countermeasures. The SA-24 mentioned has optical sensors as well, making the missile extremely hard to defeat in flight.
Civilian aircraft have no such defense and are extremely vulnerable to this type of missile. Although the warheads involved are fairly small, most likely only destroying an engine of a large airliner, that is not a chance many would enjoy taking.
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Since they are portable, these weapons can be used anywhere. For instance, a terrorist could sit in a house near an airport and take pot shots at aircraft taking off and landing. This is extremely disturbing to see confirmation these weapons are in hands of ISIS.