As a reminder of Iran's on-going efforts in this area, Sara Carter of the Washington Examiner has new information on Tehran's assistance for insurgents in Afghanistan. Various U.S. officials tell Ms. Carter--who is currently reporting from the war zone--that Iran is training Taliban fighters on the use of man-portable surface-to-air missiles (MANPAD SAMs), and may be supplying those weapons as well:
"We know the [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] has been training Taliban fighters in the use of surface-to-air missiles," said a military official in Afghanistan with knowledge of the situation. "As of the moment it is uncertain whether the Taliban has access to the weapons systems necessary to utilize this training against the coalition."
That is the key question -- whether the Iranian government or other supporters of the Taliban have so far supplied the weapons necessary to conduct significant attacks against U.S. or coalition aircraft in the region, military sources said. The Iranians reportedly possess Chinese portable surface-to-air missiles of the type that would threaten coalition aircraft.
Current and retired military officers tell the Examiner that improved Taliban employment of MANPADs could be a "game-changer" in the Afghan conflict, jeopardizing NATO's control of the air. During the 1980s war with the former Soviet Union, mujaheddin fighters used American-supplied Stinger missiles to chase Russian helicopters (and other close air support platforms) from the skies, forcing Moscow to eventually withdraw its military forces.
But care must be taken in comparing the Russian experience in Afghanistan, and our own experience with Taliban MANPADs. For starters, it's worth remembering that Taliban and Al Qaida elements have used shoulder-fired SAMs against our aircraft throughout the conflict, with virtually no success.
And it's no due to a lack of weaponry, either. Literally hundreds of MANPADs were left behind after the war with Russia ended. And, U.S. experts were stunned to learn that early-model Stingers, along with older, Soviet-built SA-7s and SA-14s remained viable years after their projected expiration date, even in Afghanistan's brutal climate, and with none of the required maintenance.
The problem, we discovered was with how the missiles were employed. We won't go into specific details, but suffice it to say, both Taliban and Al Qaida gunners made fundamental mistakes that virtually guaranteed a miss. That may be one reason that RPGs became the weapon of choice against NATO helicopters--and that Iran was called in to provide remedial training.
But even optimum employment tactics won't guarantee success. One reason the Soviets lost the air war in the 1980s was their inability to field state-0f-the-art self-protection suites, and teach their aircrews how to use them. As losses rose, the Russians simply moved their attack choppers and aircraft out of the SAM belt, greatly reducing the effectiveness of those platforms.
By comparison, the U.S. has invested heavily in counter-measures systems designed to defeat MANPAD SAMs. This technology is based on years of years of testing and analysis of various shoulder-fired missiles, including those found in Afghanistan. And, with advances in electronics and computer technology, defensive systems can be updated without removing them from the aircraft; it's just a matter of plugging a portable computer into the aircraft, and the self-protection software is updated instantly.
Additionally, U.S. crews have long trained for the IR SAM threat, so our tactics are refined and effective. We also have the advantage of improved surveillance, thanks to Predator and Reaper drones. UAVs are often deployed ahead of attack packages, allowing identification of potential threats before the Apaches, Blackhawks and A-10s arrive in the area. And, since most of the drones now carry Hellfire missiles (or similar weaponry), there's no need to wait for a manned aircraft to eliminate the threat.
There's also the matter of what MANPADs might be available to insurgents. Ms. Carter's account mentions the HN-5, a Chinese copy of the 40-year-old SA-7. Needless to say, the HN-5 is anything but state-of-the-art. Defensive suites on NATO helicopters and other aircraft can easily defeat the first-generation MANPAD. Taliban and Al Qaida elements won't gain much from the HN-5, except an early opportunity to meet Allah and their allotment of virgins.
Still, the MANPAD threat in Afghanistan can't be totally dismissed. Even the ancient HN-5/SA-7 can be effective in an ambush scenario. There's also the chance that terrorists might acquire more advanced systems. Literally thousands of MANPADs of all types are available for sale on the black and gray arms markets, including more capable systems like the Russian SA-16 and SA-18. Conversely, there is no confirmation that the most deadly MANPAD (Stinger RMP) has made its way into the hands of our adversaries.
But earlier Stinger models were manufactured under license by various foreign nations, including Pakistan. Given the relationship between that nation's intelligence service and the Taliban, it's possible that some of those missile have been used against our aircraft in Afghanistan.