Who provided Libya Russian made SA-24 anti-aircraft missiles?
by David A. Fulghum at 3/23/2011
The Russian-made SA-24 Grinch can shoot down coalition aircraft effectively at altitudes up to about 11,000 ft. That would not affect most combat patrols, which are being flown above 20,000 ft., but once humanitarian relief, refuge, medical evacuation and other low-altitude missions begin, they could be lethal, particularly in the hands of groups operating outside the bounds of legality and conventional rules of engagement.
The revelation – not yet announced by the coalition – came as a surprise to U.S. and international military analysts because there have been only rumors of a possible Igla-S/SA-24 sale to Libya and no mention of it in official sources, such as the United Nations Arms Registry. Pictures of the SA-24 have appeared on television since the start of the Libyan conflict, but were not publically identified by the intelligence community.
“The SA-24 Grinch, or Igla-S, is an improved variant of the SA-18 Grouse — or Igla — with better performance, lethality, and counter-measures resistance,” says Douglas Barrie, senior fellow for military aerospace at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “It is believed to have a maximum slant launch range of up to 6,000 [meters], and a maximum engagement altitude of 3,500 meters. Development of the system appears to have been completed in the early years of the last decade. The SA-24 represents a credible threat to aircraft, helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles operating within its engagement envelope.”
There is a question about whether the SA-24 systems sold to the Libyans can be removed from their small-truck mounts and used as man-portable air defense (manpads) or if they are considered part of an integrated system. From the pictures, the weapon’s flexibility is not apparent.
“If you were to ask me which SAMs are the threat right now, I would say the un-located mobile ones [SA-6 Gainfuls and SA-8 Geckos on tracked vehicles and SA-24s welded into the beds of pickup trucks] rather than the fixed site, easily targeted ones,” says a U.S. defense official. “The mobile ones are extremely dangerous – both radar-guided and manpad-based systems.”
The fixed-site weapons are the SA-2 Guideline, SA-3 Goa and SA-5 Gammon. The surviving longer range SAMs are radar-guided SA-6s (7-km altitude) and SA-8s (5-km altitude) The mobile SAMs are still on the loose, but radar-guided missile systems and their supporting communications and data links are being degraded by an active electronic attack campaign that includes jamming and some cybernetwork penetration activity, say U.S. officials who are analyzing the campaign in real time. That leaves optically guided and infrared-guided weapons as the main threat to coalition aircraft flying over Libya which makes the infrared-guided SA-24 the most potent threat remaining.
“This is not an operation without risk,” says the U.S. defense analyst. “We are putting people in harm’s way. [The coalition aircraft] are the only things in the sky right now, so target de-confliction is not an issue for the bad guys.”
Questions raised by the SA-24 photos involve identifying who sold the systems to Libya and when. While technically states are supposed to report to the U.N. Arms Register, many do not and they are not in violation of national or international law. Also, some transfers have been made through third parties.
“I just finished checking the U.N. Arms Register for information on the SA-24 sale to Libya and I didn’t see a single reference to missile sales to Libya in Russian declarations since 2000,” says Matt Schroeder, director of the arms sales monitoring project for the Federation of American Scientists.
“One of the key concerns regarding the SA-24 missiles and launchers is their utility to terrorists who tend to favor man-or crew-portable systems over vehicle-mounted systems should the weapons be diverted to the black market,” Schroeder says. “It’s not clear whether [the Libyan missiles] fit that description.
“We must first identify the model of the SA-24 missile launcher and whether it can easily be taken off the light truck on which they are currently mounted and used as a stand-alone weapon by a small autonomous crew of dismounted infantry,” Schroeder says. Another key question to answer is “whether the SA-24s used with the [truck-mounted] launchers can be used with man-portable gripstocks. If the answer to both is no, then the danger of the system being acquired and used by terrorists is significantly diminished.
“If the answer to either question is yes, then more questions follow, including when the systems were transferred, since manpad transfers were not required to be reported before 2003 and submissions for 2010 have not been published yet,” Schroeder says. Yet another determinant would be whether “they come directly from Russia or were they transfers [from an intermediate buyer]?”
With reporting by Robert Wall in London.