DALLAS — Surface-to-Air missile (SAM) threats on commercial aviation and other stand-off weapons’ potential to target passenger aircraft are vexing concerns for aviation security (AVSEC).
Surface-to-Air Missiles are also known as Ground to Air Missile (GTAM), Surface-to-Air Guided Weapon (SAGW), and technically, Man-Portable Air Defence Systems (MANPADS). They are projectiles designed to be launched from the ground to destroy aircraft or other missiles. They are anti-aircraft systems and can have a detection range of about 10km and an engagement range of 6km.
Depending on how they find and reach their targets, missiles can generally be divided into three groups: Laser-Guided Missiles (LGM), Command Line-Of-Sight missiles (CLOS), and Infrared-Homing Missiles (IHM).
Commercial airplanes are vulnerable to missile attacks in areas where armed forces and terrorists are present, as well as the limited ability to enhance and extend security outside airport perimeters and alter flight trajectories.
Accountability lies, inter alia, under the 1973 Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Civil Aviation (sometimes referred to as the Sabotage Convention or the Montreal Convention), which makes it an offense to unlawfully and intentionally destroy a civilian aircraft in service. Each State Party must criminalize such offenses and must prosecute or extradite suspects.
This Convention offers no defense to either States or non-State actors based on their political motivation, nor on any purported rights of combatants in an armed conflict.
Below are some of the most prominent examples of SAM incidents and a few ways to combat such threats.
Examples of SAM Accidents
1. Ukraine International Airline Flight 752 (PS752)
On January 8, 2020, a B737-800 operated by Ukraine International Airlines (PS) was shot down by two Tor M-1 surface-to-air missiles shortly after takeoff from Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport (IKA). The flight was bound for Boryspil International Airport (KBP) in eastern Kyiv, Ukraine. All 176 people, including crew, perished.
2. Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17)
On July 17, 2014, a Buk 9M83 surface-to-air missile downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17), a B777, as it was traveling over eastern Ukraine. All 283 passengers and 15 crew members on board the airplane died when it crashed while en route from Amsterdam Schiphol International Airport (AMS), Netherlands, to Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA), Malaysia.
3. DHL Express Airbus A300B-200F (OO-DLL)
On November 22, 2003, a surface-to-air missile struck the left wing of an Airbus A300B2-200F cargo plane owned by European Air Transport (QY) and operating on behalf of DHL Express as it was heading to Bahrain International Airport (BAH), Muharraq, Bahrain, shortly after takeoff from Baghdad International Airport (BGW), Baghdad, Iraq. There was a fire and total loss of hydraulic flight control systems as a result of severe wing and undercarriage damage.
The three-person flight crew landed the severely damaged A300 in Baghdad without sustaining any injuries. The only pilot input used was differential engine thrust. This was true despite significant wing damage, a complete loss of hydraulic control, a landing speed that was well over the recommended limit, and a ground route that deviated from the runway onto the unprepared grounds.
The Gordon-Burge Memorial Award and the Professionalism Award in Flight Safety were given to all three crew members by The Honourable Company of Air Pilots and the Flight Safety Foundation, respectively, in recognition of their extraordinary piloting skills in flying their aircraft to a safe landing after a missile strike.
4. Arkia Israel Airlines Flight 582 ( IZ582)
Two Strela-2M anti-aircraft missiles were fired at Arkia Israel Airlines Flight 582 (IZ582), operating a Boeing 757-300 passenger plane, on November 28, 2002, just moments after it took off from Moi International Airport (MBA) in Mombasa, Kenya.
Thankfully, the missiles missed the plane, which proceeded on its journey without incident and successfully landed at Ben Gurion Airport (TLV) in Tel Aviv some five hours later, escorted by Israeli F-15 fighter jets. The incident happened about 20 minutes before the Mombasa bombing of the Paradise hotel.
5. Lignes Aériennes Congolaises Boeing 727-30 (9Q-CSG)
On October 10, 1998, just three minutes after takeoff, a Strela 2 surface-to-air missile downed the Lignes Aeriennes Congolaises, a chartered flight operating a Boeing 727-30 from Kindu Airport (KND) to N’djili International Airport (FIH) in Kinshasa with 38 passengers and three crew members on board. The captain attempted an emergency landing after the missile struck the aircraft’s rear, but the B727 crashed into a dense jungle close to Kindu. All 41 souls on board perished.
6. Lion Air Flight 602 (JT602)
A Lionair (JT) Antonov An-24RV crashed into the sea off the coast of Iranaitivu, Mannar District, Sri Lanka, on September 29, 1998, while en route as flight number 602 from Jaffna International Airport (JAF), Sri Lanka, Ratmalana Airport (RML), Colombo, Sri Lanka. A plane carrying 48 passengers and seven crew members disappeared from radar screens ten minutes into the flight after being shot down by MANPADS missiles. Among the 55 people killed in the plane disaster were eight children.
7. Rwandan Presidential Jet Dassault Falcon 50 (9XR-NN)
The Dassault Falcon 50 (9XR-NN) carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi, Juvenal Habyarimana and Cyprian Ntaryamira, was shot down by surface-to-air missiles on April 6, 1994, as it was about to land at Kigali International Airport (KGL) in Rwanda.
The flight had taken off from Tanzania’s Dar es Salaam international airport (DAR). The Dassault Falcon’s tail was hit by the second surface-to-air missile after the first one had struck one of its wings. The aircraft burst into flames while in the air before falling into the presidential palace’s garden. All 12 passengers on board died in the disaster, which also sparked the Rwandan genocide.
Combating the Use of SAMs on Civilian Aircraft
As a result of the dangers that airborne missiles can pose to aviation security, various technologies have been created as protective measures. They include direct infrared countermeasures (DIRCMs), which lead missile seekers to mistake the location of the aircraft and miss their target, and infrared decoy flares that can fool infrared homing missiles.
Additionally, Missile Warning Systems (MWS) have the ability to warn an aircraft of an approaching missile. However, due to their high cost (US$1–4m per aircraft) and potential ineffectiveness against next-generation surface-to-air missiles due to technological improvement, these countermeasures would take years to deploy in airplanes.
Due to these factors, efforts to reduce the use of surface-to-air missiles on civilian aircraft must take into account not only the countermeasures indicated above but also the following course of action.
1. Structure Pilot Training for the Likelihood of a SAM Attack
Structuring a pilot’s training for the possibility of surface-to-air missiles will increase the aircraft’s survival. The crews of commercial aircraft must regularly receive training to deal with more severe damage from surface-to-air missiles.
Training can be improved by using simulations, targeted strike scenarios, evasive maneuver practice, and steeply modifying flight paths during takeoff and landing to reduce time spent in risk zones. DHL Express pilots in Iraq successfully landed their A300B2-200F after being hit by a surface-to-air missile, highlighting the value of pilot training.
2. Protecting Approach and Departure
Safeguard approach and departure routes by policing nearby airport areas utilizing unannounced helicopter sweeps along unpredictable routes where surface-to-air missile threats are known or suspected. Unmanned Aerial vehicles (UAVs) could also be used to monitor the airport’s sky.
3. Shared Intelligence and International cooperation
To thwart surface-to-air missile assaults on civilian aircraft and raise pilot awareness and caution, shared intelligence and international cooperation should be encouraged. The international community and agencies should offer each other clear information and provide technical support as needed.
4. Limiting the Use of Missiles to Authorized Operations
A fourth way to restrict the use of surface-to-air missiles to just authorized operations and individuals is by equipping the missiles with microelectronics, computers, and GPS connections to prevent usage by unauthorized users or targeting nearby civilian airfields and aircraft.
The shooting down of MH17 over Ukraine shows how vulnerable we all are when we travel. It was, said the Director of the International Airline Transport Association Tony Tyler, “an attack against the air transport system which is an instrument of peace.”
Commercial aviation and international security communities have a common interest in protecting civil aviation from missile attacks. This interest could be aligned and advanced with the help of international law, making controls and responsibilities on anti-aircraft missiles legally binding and missile access to persons or groups who are not authorized to have them clearly prohibited.
Featured image: UR-PSR, the aircraft involved in the incident in October 2019. Photo: LLBG Spotter CC BY-SA 2.0. Sources: American Society of International Law, IATA