Air Transport World

The enemy down below: shoulder-launched missiles present a new threat to airlines.(Security)

On Nov. 28 last year, al-Qaida terrorists fired two Russian-made Strela-2M missiles at an Arkia Airlines 757-300 as it lifted off from Mombasa, Kenya. The missiles were fired from a white four-wheel-drive vehicle parked about a quarter-mile away from the airport perimeter. Both missed and the 757, with 261 tourists and 10 crew on board, continued safely to Tel Aviv. According to a passenger, one smoke trail passed within a meter of the jet's wing.

The Mombasa incident was far from the first attack by shoulder-launched missiles--known generically as man-portable air defense systems or Manpads--on a commercial airplane. But like a related attempt to assassinate Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres in Prague in November 2001, it differed from earlier Manpads assaults: it was not carried out in a war zone. The attackers moved into close range before firing but made a clean escape. They knew enough to use two missiles--no missile is 100% effective. The weapons missed, but by such a short distance that the pilot and passengers could sense the supersonic shock wave from at least one.

Another disturbing factor: The missile launchers used in the Mombasa and Prague operations were, according to Israeli intelligence officials quoted in the London Daily Telegraph, both part of a batch produced in May 1974. This confirmed that Manpads can remain usable long after their official "sell-by" date and that even some of the oldest Strelas are still operable after 30 years of storage in uncertain conditions.

Then in March the Israeli daily Maa'riv reported that the Hezbollah terrorist group had acquired the more advanced Igla (SA-18) missile. Combined with apparently more effective techniques for using Strelas, this constitutes a significant change in the Manpads threat.

Israel has responded by announcing development of the Rafael Britening, a missile-jamming system based on military technology. …

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