- Fighters loyal to Osama bin Laden and the Taliban have
stockpiled between 100 and 200 American-supplied Stinger anti-aircraft
missiles and are preparing to use them to ambush US special forces' helicopters.
- The man-portable Stingers, provided by the CIA in 1981
to help the Afghan mujahideen counter the menace of Soviet helicopter gunships,
have been distributed to units guarding key leaders and headquarters complexes
in the caves of the Hindu Kush.
- Military intelligence sources say the Stinger, a heat-seeking,
"fire-and-forget" weapon, poses a major threat even to helicopters
equipped with counter-measures such as magnesium flare dispensers.
- Over hostile areas, both jets and helicopters launch
the high-intensity flares to decoy heat-seeking missiles. But the Stinger
is fitted with a microprocessor in its warhead designed to ignore decoys
and home on engine radiation.
- The Stinger's operator balances the 32lb launcher on
his shoulder until a target comes into sight. When the aircraft enters
the missile's range - out to two miles and up to 4800ft away - its "seeker
head" emits a buzzing sound.
- He then launches it and takes cover while it accelerates
to more than 1000mph towards its victim's heat signature, the seeker providing
course corrections en route.
- The US MH53 Pave Low special forces' transport helicopter,
the main assault vehicle in commando raids, carries up to 38 fully-equipped
troops and six crewmen.
- Its engines are shielded to reduce heat emissions, but
it is impossible to eliminate the tell-tale radiation entirely. It shows
up even more clearly over mountainous terrain, in darkness, or in cold
- The CIA provided the mujahideen with about 1000 Stingers
in the early 1980s. The guerrilla fighters were trained to use them by
Britain's SAS and former special forces' mercenaries operating out of bases
- The mujahideen, hardly the world's most sophisticated
warriors, nevertheless managed to down 269 Soviet helicopters in 340 launches.
- When the Russian forces withdrew from Afghanistan in
1989, the CIA offered a £35,000 bounty for every unused Stinger returned.
But by that time, the weapons were selling for up to twice that amount
on the international black market and few found their way back to the US.
- They have since shown up in conflicts in Chechnya, Colombia,
Sri Lanka, and Lebanon, and among the Kurds fighting Turkish rule. Almost
all are in the hands of terrorist or insurgent groups such as Hizbollah
and the Tamil Tigers.
- The beauty of the Stinger is that it is sturdy and simple
to use, while having the ability to engage a jet or helicopter head-on.
Most heat-seeking missiles have to home on the tail of a target to lock
on to its engine emissions.
- It is also fitted with a proximity fuse which will detonate
the 7lb warhead and spray out lethal shrapnel if the aircraft tries a last-gasp
- The US special forces support squadron lost an AC-130
Hercules Spectre gunship to a simple, shoulder-fired Russian Sam-7 missile
over southern Kuwait in the 1991 Gulf war.
- The lumbering aircraft, the same type used last week
over Afghanistan, had been strafing survivors of a brigade-strength Iraqi
armoured attack on Khafji, a resort town on the northern Saudi coast, the
previous day. It was searching for a Frog missile launcher vehicle reported
in the border area by US Marines.
- It was twice ordered to break off the low-level hunt
as dawn broke, but lingered slightly too long. It was struck by the Sam-7
between the fuselage and the inboard left engine.
- The explosion sheared off the wing and the Spectre plunged
into the Gulf, killing the five officers and nine other crewmen aboard.
- A special forces' officer told The Herald: "Most
modern helicopters come fitted with engine shielding, electronic countermeasures
pods and automatic flare dispensers.
- "It's a far cry from the 1980s, when the only defence
against heat-seeking missiles was usually a crewman firing a flare-gun
out of an open door at intervals.
- "But the Stinger remains a major threat. Fired in
salvoes of four or five at a time, it could overcome any decoy system.
- "The Taliban only have to knock down one troop transport
to produce 44 bodybags and a political crisis.
- "If they took out two or three, it would certainly
put a crimp in the coalition's raiding strategy and could end the hit-and-run