Air Defense: Flying the Unfriendly Skies of Afghanistan


September 2, 2006: In Afghanistan, the Taliban appear determined to shoot down American or NATO helicopters or aircraft. Although government and Coalition aircraft –whether fixed or rotary wing – have not suffered many loses since the war in Afghanistan began in late 2001, the Taliban has been seen making a serious effort to improve their anti-aircraft capability, apparently in order to score a headline grabbing success. Although knocking down aircraft was a major factor in the mujahadeen campaign against the Soviets during the 1980s, the Afghan resistance back then was the beneficiary of sustained U.S. support, which flooded the country with Stinger portable anti-aircraft missiles. While some of these Stingers may still be around, their batteries have long since expired, and the Taliban does not seem to have been able to procure equivalent replacements. What the Taliban does have access to, however, is old Soviet-era anti-aircraft (AA) guns.
While precise numbers are unknown, the Taliban seems to have a small number of old Soviet AA guns, left over when the Russians departed in 1988. These probably include ZU-23 twin 23-mm towed guns (possibly even the truck mounted version) and, more certainly, some ZPU-series towed 14.5-mm HMGs (heavy machine-guns). None of these systems are particularly high-tech, but could prove dangerous to low flying aircraft under certain conditions. For example, based on past practice, the Taliban may try to set up "AA traps." This could be done by offering apparently lucrative targets in rugged areas that have limited approach routes, so that cell phone equipped spotters can report air movements to well-concealed AA guns on surrounding higher ground. This is more or less the way the Serbs were able to down an American F-117.
If the Taliban were able to bring down a helicopter or A-10 using these tactics, they would gain enormous propaganda benefits. It would mean nothing in a purely military sense, but that "firing from above" tactic was used during the 1980s fighting. The Taliban have long been trying to make the current battle equivalent to the 1980s war, at least in the minds of Afghans. They have not been very successful, and are desperate to change that. So all this effort to refurbish, and return to service, twenty year old anti-aircraft weapons, apparently has a purpose.
Unlike the Russians in the 1980s, the American presence has not killed over a million Afghans, and caused millions more to flee the country. The Americans are as popular, as the Russians were unpopular. More importantly, the U.S. has UAVs, which make it much easier to spot the Taliban moving these AA weapons. The Taliban know enough to disassemble the AA systems for transport, but that has not made them invisible to observation.
The Taliban have also obtained some older Russian portable anti-aircraft missiles (like the Russian SAM-7), but these have not been used with much success. It is known that Islamic terrorists, in general, are trying to get more modern Russian AA missiles. This is another potential threat that aviators in Afghanistan must keep in mind.




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