Pak Taliban have claimed they brought down the army helicopter on May 8 — a claim that the Pak army rejects. Praveen Swami examines
Could the Pak Taliban have shot down the Pak army helicopter?
In principle, yes, though there’s no way to tell without examining the debris. The region is awash with man-portable surface-to-air missiles, or MANPADS, as well as anti-aircraft guns and rocket-propelled grenades. These weapons systems are capable of taking out a low-flying helicopter.
The Pak Taliban are known to possess MANPADS, as well as anti-aircraft guns, purchased from Taliban units across the border in Afghanistan and pillaged from the Pakistan army. A UN report warned last year that thousands of MANPADS stolen from Libya’s military arsenals were being trafficked around the world. There are also reports that US-made FIM92 Stinger and SA-24 Igla-S MANPADS sold to the Libyan opposition are now on the market.
Have such attacks taken place before?
Ever since the May 2006 crash of a Pakistani helicopter over Mir Ali, in the country’s war-torn north-west, local Taliban units have made several similar claims — each denied by the Pakistan army. There are several documented missile attacks involving the Afghan Taliban — some elements of whom work closely with the Pak Taliban.
The first recorded use of a heat-seeking shoulder-fired missile by the Afghan Taliban was in July 2007, when a Soviet-made SA7 missile locked on to a C-130 transport aircraft over Nimruz. The crew, however, defeated it with evasive countermeasures and flares. In addition, the Taliban are known to have access to Pakistan-made Anza missiles, as well as ZPU-1 14.5 mm and ZU-23-2 heavy machine guns.
Can terrorists’ weapons destroy combat aircraft?
Yes. So far, 27 helicopters have been lost to enemy fire in the course of the ISAF combat operations in Afghanistan —more than a fifth of the total 121 destroyed. In the 1980s, US-supplied Stinger MANPADS had turned the tide of war against the Soviet Union, forcing them to scale back helicopter attacks on the mujahideen. That hasn’t quite happened in Afghanistan now, because of sophisticated electronic warfare systems on modern military air assets. But pilots still have to be careful while flying in combat zones.
Should passengers in commercial airliners be worried?
Since the mid-1970s, 40 civilian aircraft have been hit by MANPADS, causing over 600 deaths. The kinds of weapons being used against military aircraft in Pakistan or Afghanistan can be used against civilian aircraft everywhere, with lethal effect. Terrorists have long hoped to pull off such an attack. For example, 9/11 perpetrators Khalid Sheikh Mohammad and Ramzi Bin al-Shibh had planned to fire a heat-seeking missile from the famous Legoland amusement park at a jet descending at London’s Heathrow airport. In 2002, al-Qaeda fired a missile at an El Al jet taking off from Mombassa, Kenya. El Al has been installing special counter-measures on some of its jets, but few other civilian airlines are willing to undertake the expense. The growing availability of Libyan MANPADS makes an attack on civilian airliners ever more likely.