Air Defense: SA-7 In Afghanistan


July 30, 2007: For the first time in Afghanistan, the enemy has used a portable air-to-air missile against a coalition aircraft. The missile, probably a SA-7 "Strela" smuggled in from Iran, missed an American C-130 transport that was flying low over southwestern Afghanistan.

The U.S. has lost some 135 helicopters, and a few fixed wing aircraft, in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last six years. Two-thirds of the losses were to accidents, the rest mainly to machine-gun or PRG fire. Few missiles have been used. The U.S. Army and Marines have over 5,000 helicopters in service, so the losses are not having any impact on operations.

During the Vietnam war, 4,642 helicopters were lost (between 1966-71), 45 percent to combat action. Helicopters were about twice as likely to be brought down by enemy fire in Vietnam, compared to Iraq and Afghanistan. More helicopters were used, more frequently, in Vietnam. In Iraq and Afghanistan, American forces spend more time on the roads, despite the dangers, in order to stay in touch with the people, and the terrorists.

Iraq already had thousands of SA7 type missiles when Saddam fell, but not many have been used. There were believed to be hundreds of SA7s out in the Afghan hills when the Taliban fell, but none appear to have been used until now. Some may have been fired, but just not noticed by their targets.

The SA7 has been around since the 1960s, and is still popular because it remains potent against non-military transports. The SA7 is unable to deal well with decoys or the other types of countermeasures that are so common on military aircraft. The SA7 itself is about 4.6 feet long, weighs 33 pounds and has a max range of 3.2-4.2 kilometers (depending on the model). It can't hit anything above 6,000 feet and has a warhead of 3-4 pounds (again, depending on the model). Against larger transports, it will more likely damage than destroy. But one and two engine commercial aircraft, and helicopters, are very vulnerable.

In Somalia, where about 200 SA7s were brought in from Iran last year, to supply Islamic radicals, as many as ten of these missiles were fired at transports and helicopters so far. One transport crash landed, while a helicopter was shot down. Most of the missiles are still out there, either for sale, or being held for use in the continuing Somali civil war.

Over 50,000 SA7 missiles have been built since the 1960s, and copies of the SA7 design are still produced by some countries (like China), mainly for use by irregular forces. Russian firms offer refurbishment and upgrades for older SA7 missiles.

Recently, NATO troops captured some SA-7s being smuggled in from Iran for the Taliban. As a result of that, NATO pilots were warned to be on the alert for such attacks. All NATO aircraft in Afghanistan have countermeasures (sensors that detect an oncoming missiles, and flare dispensers to draw the missiles (which home in on heat) away.

Firing these missiles is dangerous, as they produce a prominent flash and plume of smoke when launched. This makes it easier to hunt down whoever fired it.


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