LIBYA’S SA-24 “STINGER EQUIVALENTS.” A Source of Enduring Confusion.

After war erupted last year in Libya and led, as Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s forces gave ground, to the wholesale looting of the country’s military depots, the results presented those who follow arms trafficking with both a rare opportunity to access a dictator’s weapons stocks and to follow up close the flow of gray- and black-market arms.

During Libya’s years of engagement with nations that manufacture arms — variously with the West, the Soviet bloc and the East — King Idris, the former monarch, and Qaddafi, who overthrew him, accumulated weapons at an outsized scale. Much of this was done in secrecy. In recent decades no one outside of the inner Qaddafi circle knew all or exactly what Libya had. In the place of clarity there was a visceral hunch: Colonel Qaddafi’s deep oil-state coffers and his gleeful international bad-boy persona all but ensured if ever the gates were cast open, there would be much to see, plenty to worry over, and many surprises.

And then, at the outset of war, Libya’s gates were battered down. The killing tools rushed into the field, gripped by both sides.

As a result of this sudden and then sustained visibility of the stock, much of what Libya had acquired has now been documented and traced back to its sources. The public record that has been made — by the United Nations, by journalists and non-government organizations, and by Western governments – has sketched in substantial detail the perils of a bunker state. But important questions remain. And on some themes, confusion endures.

One source of enduring public confusion involves MANPADS and the SA-24.  

MANPADS, the security community’s clunky acronym for Man-Portable Air Defense Systems, are relatively small heat-seeking missiles that a lone shooter can fire from the shoulder. They are a class of weapon, formerly defined in the public imagination by the American-made Stinger, that in the age of terrorism is feared in aviation and security circles for the menace the missiles pose to civilian air traffic. Many military planes have countermeasures to thwart or confuse MANPADS’ thermal seeker heads. Civilian aircraft (with the generally acknowledged exception of Israeli civilian aircraft) do not. This blog and The New York Times have written of Libya’s MANPADS and their associated risks at length. (Here was an early example; here is a more detailed review.)

The SA-24 is one of Russia’s most advanced short-range air defense weapons, and is manufactured for both larger systems that fire from vehicle-mounted pedestal launchers (vaguely resembling a thick machine-gun turret) and for smaller systems that fire from compact portable launchers, known as grip stocks, that rest on a shooter’s shoulder.

Libya acquired many SA-24 missiles from Russia, at least several hundred individual tubes, according to the shipping documents found in the revolution’s refuse. (One of those documents is visible among the images at the top of this post; I found it in Misrata last year. Peter Bouckaert, a senior staffer and energetic field researcher for Human Rights Watch, found at least one other document, for a larger shipment, in Tripoli.) What these documents and the scouring in the field have presented researchers with is this, which as near as we can tell can be marked down as an ice-cold fact: while there has never been a question that SA-24 vehicle-mounted systems were present in Libya, no evidence has been found that Libya ever possessed the shoulder-fired SA-24 variants.

This is a distinction with a difference, and the subject of a post on The New York Times’ At War blog today.

We examined whether SA-24 MANPADS (the shoulder-launched missiles and systems) actually were present in Libya for two reasons. One is that if these weapons were in fact there, it would signal that the already substantial dangers of loose arms in Libya would be even worse, and the arms-related regional security risks from the combined effects of trafficking to North Africa and of Libya’s uprising were more frightening than what had been known. The other was related to geopolitics, the Kremlin and aviation security worldwide. If SA-24 MANPADS were verifiably present in Libya, then this fact would rearrange our understanding of Kremlin arms deals in the past decade. It would also provide firm grounds to worry that SA-24 MANPADS, one of the world’s most dangerous short-range anti-craft weapons, were more widespread than believed, and that despite its assurances, latter-day Russia was shipping exceptionally dangerous arms in the secret fashion seen in Soviet times.  In short, if it were established that Russia had surreptitiously shipped shoulder-fired SA-24’s to Libya and repeatedly lied about these transfers, it might mean that these same weapons were also in the arsenals of any number of other of Russia’s arms clients, and could turn up elsewhere.

Ultimately, the search for evidence of SA-24 MANPADS in Libya has been, in reportorial terms, a dry hole. No sign has surfaced of such transfers. Notwithstanding many sources saying otherwise, Libyan SA-24 “MANPADS” and “Stinger equivalents” do not actually seem to exist. They are a unicorn, if you will, of the Qaddafi era and the latest Libyan war. From a security standpoint, this is inarguably a good thing. But the pursuit of these unicorns led to many other places useful to understanding and framing the risks of Libya’s anti-aircraft missiles.

With that in mind, one of the editors of today’s At War post suggested that we present a few technical and analytical research points here as a supplement.  

And so, quickly, typed out between other assignments, here goes.

First, a very brief overview of what the evidence has shown about Libya’s MANPADS stocks generally.

No matter the news stories and Internet chatter claiming otherwise, evidence for only one class of MANPADS – the SA-7 — has been found in Libya since the stockpiles were looted last year and a scrum of investigators went to work on these questions. The SA-7 was a first-generation Russian-designed system, with technical characteristics reaching to the late 1950s. It is potentially a very dangerous weapon, especially against low-elevation aircraft on a predictable course, such as a jetliner approaching a runway or in the minutes after taking off. And it is the only type of MANPADS to have been documented in Libya by credible means. Evidence of its updated shoulder-fired cousins from the old Soviet design bureaus – the SA-14, SA-16 or SA-24 — has not been found in Libya by any credible researchers, at least not of which we are aware.

The Christian Science Monitor reported last September that it had found “crates of SA-14’s” in Tripoli, at a warehouse and press scrum that has contributed to some of the lingering MANPADS confusion. Human Rights Watch also publicly reported finding an SA-14 in eastern Libya early in 2011, and told The New York Times by email that it had found evidence of SA-14s in that same warehouse visited by the Christian Science Monitor. But HRW has since disavowed the Benghazi find, and said that was a mistaken identification of a less commonly seen SA-7 configuration. It has also backed away from the initial claim of discovering empty SA-14 crates in the Tripoli warehouse. In all, after a year of looking, no one else has seen any sign whatsoever of SA-14’s in the former Qaddafi or current militia stock, and not for a want of looking. Peter Bouckaert, of HRW, sent this by email earlier this month: “We also have not found any evidence of the existence of SA-14’s in Libya,” he wrote. So back to the overiew thought: as for types of MANPADS in Libya, the only documented systems have been limited to a sprawling hodgepodge of SA-7 variants. Nothing else has been found.

Second, when it comes to assessing the security risk, there is a question of original numbers. Original numbers, as in, the type and quantity of this class of weapon that Libya possessed at the war’s start, are essential to gauging the current danger, even if the risk ultimately must be assessed by analysis, and not via as rich a body of facts as would be ideal.  No one knows the exact number of Libyan MANPADS that remain, and all we have for original numbers is a best guess. The United States government’s public estimate, which may or may not be accurate, is that during Colonel Qaddafi’s long reign his military acquired roughly 20,000 SA-7 missiles. Remember that number, but also remember this: Missiles are only missiles. They are not a complete system. SA-24 missiles, which are held in tubes, are one of two consumable and non-reusable components in a three-part MANPADS system. Each full system requires a battery, a missile tube and a grip stock. One question researchers have been trying to get answers to are how many SA-7 grip stocks Libya possessed. This is because the grip stock is reusable. In a simplified sense, it is to a MANPADS what a rifle is to a small-arms system – the weapon that does the firing. To follow this example out, a missile tube is like a cartridge. And just as there are many more cartridges than there are rifles in any army’s possession, there are many more missile tubes than grip stocks in the arsenals of countries that possess MANPADS. And grip stocks matter. They are worth counting, because without grip stocks, these weapons cannot be shoulder-fired.

So how many SA-7 grip stocks did Libya have? Again, no one, at least among the many analysts and field researchers we talk to, seems to know. However, a few things are known, gathered from other of the Kremlin’s former MANPADS customers over the years. Generally, when nations acquired this class of missiles, they acquired grip stocks in some fraction of the missile buy. A common ratio was one grip stock for every six missiles, but some nations procured grip stocks at less density than this, to save money or to fit an air-defense unit’s desires.

So do your own back-of-the-envelope calculation. If we apply a similar formula – pick your fraction, 1/6 or ¼  or 1/10 — to the estimate that Libya acquired 20,000 SA-7 missile tubes, we can hazard that Libya came to possess as many as a few thousand SA-7 grip stocks. This assessment, while obviously a crude assessment, potentially puts the risk of transfer to a terrorist of a fully functional SA-7 system on a worrisome scale. The possibility that hundreds, even thousands, of SA-7 grip stocks went missing last year in a lawless and essentially ungoverned state makes Libya’s SA-7 a security problem of a significant order, the more so because SA-7’s have historically been a widely manufactured and distributed system, and SA-7 missiles might be available elsewhere to marry to a Libyan SA-7 grip stock.

Now back to the SA-24. Again, as with the case of Libya’s SA-7 grip stocks, precise public information about how many vehicle-mounted SA-24 launchers Libya came to posses is not known. But if history is a guide, and it likely is in this case, then it would be a fraction of the SA-24 missile purchase. This might put the number of SA-24 vehicle-mounted launchers, known as the Strelets, in the low triple digits, or even double digits.

This would align with what was seen. The SA-24 Strelets, on the evidence available, did not seem to have been widely distributed among the Qaddafi forces. Relatively few of them were spotted during or after the war. When they were documented they tended to be documented among troops deemed most loyal to the Qaddafi clan. (Al Jazeera ran images of one launcher at the western gate of Adjabiya in mid-March, as loyalist forces recaptured that town; those forces were under command of one of Colonel Qaddafi’s sons.) As these units were targeted intensely by NATO airstrikes, and ultimately routed by the anti-Qaddafi militias, many SA-24 launchers were likely destroyed in the field, making the surviving number of launchers smaller, and perhaps very small.

Some Strelets launchers, however, certainly did survive. And given the dangerous technical capabilities of the SA-24 missiles these launchers could fire (greater range, a larger warhead, a proximity fuze, and features that enable it to reject many modern countermeasures), one research priority should be in identifying and tallying the remaining Strelets launchers, and developing and proposing means to secure them (if not destroy them) before any still in Libya enter markets or otherwise pass to nefarious hands. It is not lost on anyone that even if these systems are less plentiful and perhaps less likely to be used than Col. Qaddafi’s old SA-7’s, that such smaller quantitative risks will mean nothing if one of them knocks an Airbus from the sky. There are simply few conventional weapons on earth that could kill, at the touch of a trigger, hundreds of people and potentially disrupt international travel. This one of them. Considering the relatively small size of the SA-24 stock in Libya, an effort to account for it would seem a task not only worth undertaking, but within reasonable reach.

Third, what of Libya’s SA-24 missiles themselves?  We know they were sold and shipped to Libya from Russia with the Strelets vehicle-mounted system. If someone were to acquire one of these missiles, could they be fired from an SA-24 grip stock acquired from elsewhere? In other words, let’s say a terrorist cell decided to play Mr. Potato Head. By this I mean that it bought a SA-24 tube and battery from the former Qaddafi stock, and then, via a network with access to SA-24 grip stocks from another country (Venezuela comes to mind, as Hugo Chavez’s military did acquire complete SA-24 MANPADS systems in a Kremlin-approved deal several years ago), it came to possess an SA-24 grip stock. Would the SA-24 tube from Libya work on the grip stock from the other source?

The answers are thus far murky. SA-24 missiles and grip stocks connect via metal pins on the grip stock and plastic and metal receptacles on the tube that houses the missile. These are complicated plugs, like large, flush-mounted versions of the multi-pin cables and receptacles that once connected many desktop computers to monitors and printers. Some sources say that the receptacles for the different SA-24 missile variants are identical, and thus there would be a mechanical match of any SA-24 missile to any SA-24 launcher, whether it was shoulder-fired or vehicle-launched. Others are skeptical. I have made photographs of SA-24 missile tube receptacles in Libya, but have not found good images of the SA-24 grip stock pins to compare them to. And if the pin count and shape did prove to be an identical match to the receptacle, some sources offer that the mere physical connection might not matter. Even if a Libyan SA-24 missile sold for the Strelets were matched to an SA-24 grip stock sold to another customer, these people say, the two would not work together, as they contain incompatible electronic chips. (Some of the people who have been part of this discussion have asked to remain nameless, to protect their jobs; in keeping with the Times’ standards for anonymity, I am acknowledging them here.) By our lights, the answer to this question – can a Libyan SA-24 missile even be matched to a grip stock, and thereby become a MANPADS — is unresolved, and grounds for further research, too.

Fourth, there is one further technical question: Could an SA-24 missile tube from Libya be mounted to a home-made launcher and successfully fired?  Again, there is a blizzard of conflicting assessments. David Fulghum, of Aviation Week, in an email exchange this spring, noted that many insurgent groups in the Middle East have proven to be adept at assembling and using makeshift rockets and other arms. This is a sound point. War drives human ingenuity and resourcefulness in all manner of ways, as the Libyan war showed most every day.  But ground-to-ground rockets and heat-seeking missiles are very different animals. Jury-rigging a BM-21 Grad or Type 63 rocket is not especially hard. You could figure that one out at home with basic electrical skills and the same intuitive sense that would tell you how to launch a bottle rocket over a local pond. (Though accuracy could be an issue, unless you were an able student of indirect fire.) Making a home-made grip stock that would allow you to acquire a target and fire a heat-seeking missile would be a job of a different order. That said, last year, we watched looters in Libya selectively pilfer most any weapon with a heat-seeking head, even missiles, like SA-9’s, that are fired from large, vehicle-mounted box launchers that would be almost impossible to smuggle or hide, would require technical training to operate, and for which a power source would have to be manufactured from scratch.  So, taking into account the energy with which these types of weapons were stolen, perhaps their use in makeshift launchers is in fact a possibility to worry over. As for actually scaling that risk, we’ll take a pass, while, like the rest of the arms spotters, field researchers and analysts out there, we watch and listen to see what forms of trouble Col. Qaddafi’s SA-24’s may yet bring.


Top four images, by Etienne de Malglaive, of SA-24 tubes and batteries in Tripoli as the capital changed hands in the summer of 2011. Left two photos, third row, by Damien Spleeters, of SA-24 tube and battery in Misrata in February 2012. Remaining photos by the author, in Misrata late last year, of SA-24 tubes, battery, packing crate and shipping document.


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