Monday, July 28, 2014

July 28 2014: The missile factor when it comes to flying. It is not just a threat in combat situations. We don’t want to admit it, but it may well prove to be a major problem in civilian aviation. There are many more SAMs out there than we seem to realize—and more people incentivized to use them against civilian aircraft. And SAMs are getting better and deadlier.

“We're not afraid of sanctions. We're not afraid of military invasion. What frightens us is the invasion of western immorality.”

Ruhollah Khomeini


The shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 has brought the threat of anti-aircraft missiles front and center. In fact, it has never really gone away, but is an issue that has received remarkably little media attention for some considerable time. Given the large number of such missiles in circulation, that was surprising in its way. Then again, the media depend upon advertising, airlines are good customers, and airlines certainly don’t like talking about such threats.

For their part, governments certainly don’t want to alarm their populations. Aviation plays a vital role in all economies today—whether developed or otherwise. Shutting a nation’s aviation down would have catastrophic economic consequences—but the possibility is becoming likelier by the day. Missiles are getting better and better, propellants are becoming more powerful, electronics are improving at phenomenal speed, and guidance systems are becoming more discriminating, yet harder to evade. In short, a whole new generation of SAMS is coming into circulation.

There is more to it than that—and this is particularly important. The expertise that underpins the various technologies that go into constructing an effective SAM is becoming much more widely available. Let me express it simply. For a host of reasons—including the internet and perceived urgent need—our enemies are becoming vastly more technologically literate at a rapid rate. That means they will soon be able to match our destructive toys—even if they cannot already. It also means we are soon going to be seeing highly sophisticated weaponry emerging from non-traditional sources. Or such is my opinion.

The U.S. has helped to create this situation in a host of ways—both by enabling the technologies, and by creating a climate of threat. Regarding the latter point, our invasion of Iraq—which has yielded such disastrous results—must have incentivized all who don’t have our best interests at heart to develop advanced weaponry at the fastest possible speed.

Iran, for instance, already has drones and increasingly sophisticated missiles—and these are just the weapons we know about. But, it would be hard to deny that they must have a well justified fear of being attacked—and possibly being invaded. Any doubts to that effect must have been swept away by our invasion of Iraq in 2003.

All of that apart, according to the Professional Pilots Rumour Network, over 40 civilian aircraft have been hot by MANPAD missiles since they were introduced in 1967. Most occurred in conflict zones. They caused 28 crashes and over 800 deaths (not including the recent Ukrainian incidents).

But here is the kicker: Over a million MANPAD and other missiles have been manufactured worldwide—and most are still out there and ready to be upgraded and used.

SAM = Surface to Air Missile

MANPAD = Man Portable Air Defense System (such as an SA7 or Stinger.

So who might want to use these MANPADs against civilian aircraft? Well, apart from our traditional enemies such as Iran and North Korea, we are building up a whole host of relatively new enemies—mostly extreme Islamists—who will sooner or late come to the view that shooting down civilian aircraft attracts at least as much publicity as hijackings, creates a greater climate of fear, and does vastly greater economic damage.

Can we counter this? Sure we can—up to a point. But it’s not a threat we are taking seriously as yet. We need to do so—and to think strategically about our communications. For instance, it may make sense to invest much more in high speed rail—or Elon Musk’s concept—if  only from a National Security point of view. Here it is worth pointing out that the Interstate system was justified by the Eisenhower system as essential for defense. Well, it was—but the economic advantages have been incalculable.

I believe we are in much the same situation today—except that now we seem to be ideologically averse to planning or investing. 

We also need to think through the consequences of our actions more seriously. Iraq has opened a Pandora’s box—and we may soon do just the same thing in Africa (where we are operating extensively as if we were invulnerable).

Our military may be be effectively militarily invulnerable (subject to acceptable casualties). American civilians are not.

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