There’s been a lot of news from Syria and Iraq this week, including the murder of another hostage by ISIS terrorists and threats to kill even more. But as military action against the extremists ramps up, one of the more worrying items was the downing of an Iraqi military helicopter in northern Iraq. With US and British aircraft now bombing ISIS positions, it’s obviously a worry that they seem to be developing an air defense capability.
Details on what actually happened are unclear, but it’s known that an Iraqi Army Mi-35 was shot down and both crewmen killed. The Mi-35 is the export version of the Russian (former Soviet) Mi-24V, known to NATO as the Hind-E. It’s a heavily armed and well protected machine, and current versions have reasonably good defenses against heat-seeking missiles. Against an old SA-7 missile, or early versions of the Stinger like the ones supplied to Afghans during the Soviet intervention, the infrared dampers on its exhausts are usually enough to prevent the missile locking on.
Obviously the Hind’s defenses didn’t work in this case. It’s almost possible that it was destroyed by a lucky RPG hit, as happened to US helos in Somalia, but that tactic only really works in urban areas – it would be suicide to try it against a Hind in open country, because you need to be within 50 to 80 yards to have any realistic chance of a hit. What’s much more likely is that initial reports, that ISIS has managed to get hold of late-model Russian man-portable air defense systems (MANPADs) from Iraqi military stocks, are true.
The latest Russian MANPADs are a lot harder to bluff than older models. In fact Russia has always been very good at air defense, and from the early Cold War onwards, Soviet surface to air missiles were generally equal or even superior to western ones. They were also produced in much greater variety, and that hasn’t changed since the USSR fell apart. Current Russian models range from the SA-24 Igla-S – an advanced shoulder-launched system that’s easily as good as the latest models of the Stinger – to the long-range S-400, which is capable of intercepting ballistic missiles or bringing down aircraft over 250 miles away.
ISIS has potentially managed to get their hands on anything in the Iraqi inventory, which includes the truck-mounted Pantsir-1 medium range system. The Pantsir-1 mounts twelve SA-22 missiles with a range of up to 12 miles, plus a pair of twin-barrel radar guided 30mm cannons. It’s unlikely they would be able to use this though, as it’s an advanced and complex unit. The first units were only delivered last month, as well, and so far none of them are unaccounted for. Most of the Saddam-era SAM systems, including Soviet models as well as French Rolands, were destroyed in 2003. Even if any have survived, it’s unlikely ISIS could use them; again, they’re complex.
What’s much more dangerous is the likelihood that the extremists have gotten their hands on advanced MANPADs, either from the Iraqi military or other sources. Iraq has SA-16s, an earlier version of the Igla. It’s not quite as deadly as the SA-24 but still a very serious threat to helicopters unless they have advanced jammers fitted. What’s worse, Syria has three separate Igla versions in its inventory – the SA-16, SA-18 and the latest SA-24s. At least one SA-24 is known to be in rebel hands, and that potentially means ISIS has it.
MANPADs – with the possible exception of the unjammable Shorts Starstreak, which is only used by Britain, South Africa and Thailand – are unlikely to present any threat to attack aircraft using standoff precision weapons. However, they’re much more dangerous to helicopters, and that’s something that will have to be considered if ground troops get involved. It’s extremely unlikely that ISIS has anywhere near enough to deny free movement to US or allied helicopters, but there’s definite potential for aircraft losses. That’s going to have implications for rules of engagement if helicopters do deploy, because once a missile’s in the air, it’s too late to do much about it.
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