NEW DELHI, JUNE 6: A secret $10-million operation launched by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in 1994-95 to recover all unused Stinger missiles from Afghan guerrillas proved to be a failure. But the agency need not look any further than Kargil.
For the Stingers which were recorded as missing have now been deployed by Pakistani intruders in Kargil, damaging a Canberra and downing a Mi-17 helicopter.
With the erstwhile Soviet Union’s troops leaving Afghanistan and the emergence of unemployed terrorists — once trained by the CIA and the ISI — Washington launched a covert operation to buy back the missiles from the Peshawar-based groups.
The operation became a wild goose chase, with the ISI and Afghan guerrillas making “CIA field officers and agents sit on a merry-go-round”, said an Intelligence official here. “They were only able to recover a few, and that too at very high prices. The rest they declared as missing, but now we know where they went,” added the official. The CIA was offeringupwards of $ 80,000 per missile and it had estimated that 120 Stingers were missing, said senior Intelligence officials.
The Stinger is a shoulder-fired heat-seeking surface-to-air missile (SAM), with a maximum range of 3 km. It is fired from a launcher placed on the shoulder and homes in on any source of heat emanating from an aircraft. The CIA flew in hundreds of Stingers into Pakistan during the latter half of the Afghan conflict.
Once in Pakistan, the ISI took over the responsibility of training and equipping Afghan guerrillas with Stingers. The ISI is believed not to have passed on all the remaining Stingers to Afghan guerrillas. In a widely read book, The Bear Trap, Brig Mohammed Youssaf hinted that some missiles were stolen by Pakistan. Brig Youssaf was directly handling the ISI desk responsible for operations in Afghanistan.
During the Afghan war the western media regarded the Stinger as the weapon which turned the tide in the conflict. But that is a view which finds few takers amongst themilitary officials here.
According to Army and Air Force officials present in Afghanistan during this period, “the success rate of the Stinger was estimated to be 26 per cent by the military community in Kabul at that time”. This, they added, could not be a far-fetched figure. “If you take the US Army’s training manual for operating the Stinger, an infantry man needs another 132 hours of precise training to be a proficient operator,” said an officer who worked on calculating the effectiveness of the missile.
He was alluding to the fact that a regular combatant is essential to operate the missile efficiently. While the Stingers did down some combat aircraft over Afghanistan, a large number of the losses suffered by the Soviets were actually assault helicopters undertaking “audacious operations with the Spetsnaz (special forces) in the Panjshir Valley and then suffering accidents,” said an Air Force officer. “Once simple counter-measures like flare dispensers were used, even the losses attributableto Stingers came down dramatically,” he added.
In Kargil, the Stingers have been deployed in the heights around the Drass sub-sector. The major concentration is around the Tololing feature. Despite the frequency of the sorties undertaken by the Air Force, the loss of only one aircraft to “combat conditions” is a source of satisfaction to the top brass. “While Sqd Ldr A Ahuja was brought down from across the Line of Control, and that too when in a non-combat role, it is only the Mi-17 that was been brought down during an attack operation. And that too despite the Pakistanis having fired about 15 Stingers from Tololing,” said an Air Force officer.